‘Last Train Home’ & one of world’s largest migrations

AMAZING FACT: What’s the world’s largest gathering for a religious observance? Many people recall those mass rallies hosted by the late Pope John Paul II. However, those rallies pale when compared with the several million Muslims who travel to Mecca each year—and the Hajj is not the largest by a long shot. Veteran world travelers are aware that the record is held by the mass migration to the Ganges in India that takes place in auspicious cycles, sometimes drawing more than 70 million people. According to most authorities, today, those vast Ganges piligrimages known as Kumbh Mela hold the record for a mass religious observance.

But what if we expand the definition a little bit? This week, we’re expanding our awareness of global travel. In Part 1, we introduced Judith Fein and her new book “Life Is a Trip.” Plus, we shared links to some of the most popular travel stories in ReadTheSpirit’s four years online. Tomorrow, you’ll meet Judith in our weekly interview. But, today, we’re reporting on a terrific Chinese film, new to DVD this week from Zeigeist and available at Amazon, “The Last Train Home.”

What if we ask about migrations of people for holidays in general? Certainly, Americans move by the millions at Christmas. But there’s nothing in the world quite like the 130 million Chinese migrant workers who head from urban areas to home villages for the extended New Year’s holiday. That’s the startling real-life story that unfolds in this documentary by the makers of “Up the Yantze,” a Chinese documentary we recommended in 2008.


COVER of the new DVD from Zeitgeist, showing a scene from this powerful Chinese film. That’s the daughter Qin looking wistfully out of a train window.This is a holiday movie—but don’t mistake it for one of those warmly reassuring American holiday films. Roger Ebert, in his review of “Last Train Home,” compared this documentary to a tale by Charles Dickens. And, Ebert is right. This is literally a long, dark ride into the lives of poor people who do show us that they’ve got hearts of gold, like many unfortunate Dickens characters, but this Chinese family is caught in such a vast system of economic bondage that … Well, we won’t spoil the ending.

Just as he did in filming the earlier documentary, “Up the Yangtze,” filmmaker Lixin Fan painstakingly managed to carry his equipment into some very intimate corners of Chinese life. The film takes us on two complete New Year’s journeys in 2006 and 2007, focusing on three main characters: a mother and father who agree to work in sweatshops in southern China so that their children can live with Grandmother more than 1,300 miles away in a healthy rural setting where they go to private schools.

This is the Dickensian part: In the brutal industrial expansion of China, Mom and Dad have made a deal with the devil to sacrifice their adult lives in order to kick start the next generation’s opportunities. They live in a grey-brown world of smog, curled up in a shoebox-like bunk at night, operating equipment every day so they can send money north to the little family farm. So, that New Year’s trip, each year, heading into the vibrant green of the countryside is supposed to be a fireworks-studded blow out! This Mom and Dad survive 51 weeks of relentless sweatshop labor for that annual, week-long glimpse of their kids.

In the first year, we see the fireworks. But, as it turns out, the teen-aged daughter Qin resents this deal that essentially has left her and her brother as orphans in the care of their kindly but disengaged Grandmother. Some very uncomfortable scenes erupt over the injustices this family is suffering. in a moment of rage, young Qin vows to run from the idyllic future her parents have so painstakingly tried to build for her. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a documentary, because many of these scenes are so visually striking and so personally disturbing.

At one point we see Qin, after fleeing the farm, all but locked away herself in an all-consuming job, toting supplies around in the back of a bar and grill. Then, we realize it is 2008 and the entire bar staff suddenly stops working for a moment to watch the opening of the Beijing Olympics on a big TV screen in the bar. We hear a TV anchor proudly describe what viewers are watching: “The flame of the Olympic torch lights up the Beijing skyline and a beautiful Chinese scroll unfolds in the middle of the stadium—telling a deep and exquisite ancient tale. Friends from around the world will marvel at the splendid heritage and the richness of Chinese culture.”

You will not forget that moment of Qin and her friends watching that screen in the bar. That’s why ReadTheSpirit joins other critics—including Ebert and A.O. Scott from the New York Times—in strongly recommending this film.

REMEMBER: You can order the new to DVD of “The Last Train Home” from Amazon at a discount.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com.)


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