China and its Discontents

Last Train Home

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I just watched “Last Train Home,” a movie by Lixin Fan. It was incredible–encapsulating all of the themes of modern China into a simple story about a migrant couple working in Guangzhou and their children back at home in their rural village. This is a story about 留守儿童 (liushou ertong–left behind children) and their parents. First, there are the obvious themes of industrialization, globalization, and the ripping apart of traditional family norms in search of a better life. There’s also an indictment of American consumerism (represented by the ridiculous-looking stacks of jeans the parents and later their daughter make in Guangzhou–the factory manager also makes jokes about size-40 Americans). The movie goes one step further, however, in following through in the implications of a broken family life, which not only results in predictably rebellious and unstudious children, but also in its own form of mindless consumerism and despiritualization.

But what comes most clearly across is a sense of despair at being a cog in a giant machine. The movie’s most gripping scene is a depiction of the family struggling to get on the ‘last train home’ for the Chinese New Year, waiting for nearly a week amidst a crowd of thousands outside the train station. The paramilitary police step in to help the local police in riot control, erecting barricades and managing unrest in the crowd. At one point, a father attempts to climb the barricades, saying that his daughters are lost on the other side, but is stopped by the police. Upon being stopped, he tells the paramilitary policeman, “Today you work behind the fence. Tomorrow, you’ll be standing here in my shoes.”

Is there a better sentence that sums up modern Chinese life? The migrant workers fighting to get home and see their families are stuck in this machine that does little for them; the police officers are stuck in their positions and can likewise do little to affect the situation. One senses that there’s an invisible presence hovering over every scene of the movie–the Communist Party. The CCP isn’t mentioned once throughout the entire movie–not as the grandmother is describing her life during the Cultural Revolution, nor as the workers complain about the trains and their lot in life. This is probably a good thing, because the movie is after all really about the migrant worker family. But the CCP is there, standing behind that invisible fence.