The best Chinese documentaries of the past decade seem designed to fuel our apocalyptic imagination. Whether in the post-earthquake wasteland of Du Haibin’s 1428, the critiques of Kafka-esque bureaucracy in Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment and Petition, or the monumental portrait of a declining industrial district in Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, we discover a world in which the center is barely holding and the stakes could not be higher. This is severe, tough-as-nails realism that tests the audience’s endurance, even as the life-and-death urgency beneath the surface makes it difficult to turn away.
Rivaling China’s finest documentarians, first-time director Lixin Fan begins his Last Train Home with a handful of unshakable images. First he presents a stunning aerial view of the nation’s overflowing masses, slowly panning left until the screen is clogged with a sea of migrant workers waiting for their train ride home for the Spring Festival. A subtitle bills this claustrophobic vision as the largest annual human migration in the world. Soon after, Fan cuts back to the kind of dingy, fluorescent-lit environments where this floating underclass spends the rest of the year eking out an existence. His camera repeatedly returns to the endless piles of blue jeans lying around the Guangzhou factory where his central subjects, a middle-aged married couple, make just enough money to fund their children back in faraway Sichuan.
In these few eloquent shots, Last Train Home captures what few other films have: the suffocating density of China’s population, the sheer weight of its many social and economic problems, and the unavoidable sense that a single human life here can hardly matter. The unsustainable system in which the PRC continues to function as the “factory of the world” threatens to stretch the screen beyond its limits. But the film’s best moments occur when it feels less like an Economist article and more like an old-fashioned story of adult responsibility and youthful rebellion. Not since Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide has a Chinese film offered such a compassionate glimpse of domestic life straitjacketed by financial struggle. Separated indefinitely from their family by the rigidity of China’s residential hukou laws, the increasingly frail parents are helpless to express their love for the children who feel abandoned by them. The costliness and high expectations of their yearly reunions only stir resentment, culminating in a father-daughter squabble that challenges Fan’s coolly observational style.
Unlike the amateur videomakers who first began to gnaw away at the political pieties and voice-of-God narrations in official zhuantipian docs 20 years ago, Fan mostly maintains the ease and control of a professional. Recently immigrated to Montreal, and largely funded by the same Canadian company that produced Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze, he operates within the transnational mode that has broken Chinese nonfiction out of the sociological ghetto and earned its more artistically inclined directors film-fest recognition. But Fan’s approach is more journalistic than his peers, and seems informed as much by the copious Western literature that already exists on Chinese migrant labor as by his former gig as a China Central Television producer. A third-act sequence that chronicles a nightmarish five-day wait at a train station displays his technical agility and admirable distaste for sensationalism.
Such precision can at times seem like a liability. Fan isn’t nearly as poetic as Wang Bing or Zhao Dayong in his use of on-screen space or his patterning of incidental, lifelike detail, and too often he settles for tritely juxtaposed establishing shots of smoggy cityscapes and verdant rural scenery. The dialogue prompted by his occasional off-screen questioning rarely yields more than statements of the obvious. But where Wang or Zhao leave viewers overwhelmed by their evocations of inertia and intractability, Fan cuts the clearest path through his years’ worth of footage, keeping the existential melancholy to a minimum. With a worldview clouded by neither sentimentality nor false optimism, he manages to smooth out the punishing routine of a family’s survival.