Last Train Home 归途列车 [2009] • China, Canada

I recommend this "documentary" to everyone. There are glowing and heartfelt reviews of it aplenty, and I don't object to any of the ones I've read. The film made me cry and it stayed with me for a long time, but there is one thing that bothered me about it: its complete lack of any joy whatsoever. 

Last Train Home is nominally about the largest human migration on earth, that of 130,000,000 Chinese migrant workers who travel from the cities they work in back to the villages they came from for the Lunar New Year Holidays—a huge cultural event in China. One hundred and thirty million people, and no joy? I'm not suggesting the film makers had an obligation to assemble a tourist brochure and show shiny happy people everywhere. Many films use cultural events as backdrop to a story without commenting directly on the event itself, but I felt Last Train Home did comment by omission, and I was frustrated by it.

Documentary film makers always make choices about how best to tell a story, and they almost always hedge their bets a little on the fine line between creating and simply observing a story. Not to mention the Observer Effect. On the other hand, Last Train Home isn't about the New Year Celebration much at all. It's about generation gap and changing times in China exemplified by the enormity of hell people go through during the New Year, and it's frighteningly good at telling that story.

Speaking of frightening, there is a moment in the film where the whole thing breaks down, something which would ordinarily be left on the cutting room floor or assigned to the "Making of ..." section of a DVD, but the director left it in, and it will give you a jolt. I promise.


Director: Lixin Fan
Starring: Suqin Chen, Changhua Zhan, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang, Lixin Fan

Official Site
Roger Ebert

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