Editor's Note: Last Train Home airs September 27, 2011, on PBS' POV. This article appeared in the September 2010 online Documentary in conjunction wsith the film's theatrical release thrugh Zeitgeist Films.
Last Train Home masterfully chronicles the personal story of the Zhangs, a family of migrant factory workers in China, to reveal the human story behind the billions of products stamped "Made in China." The parents, Changhua and Chen Suqin, left their poor rural village to toil in the factories of Guangzhou for 17 years, leaving behind their infant children to be cared for by grandparents. Sadly, they can only afford to return home to see their children once a year, during the New Year holiday. One painful result is that their rebellious teenage daughter is very resentful and angry that her parents have been absent most of her life.
The Zhangs gave director Lixan Fan remarkable access, enabling him to capture incredibly intimate moments between the husband and wife as well as an explosive family argument. Though the documentary focuses on one family, the filmmaker never lets you forget that the Zhang parents are just two of the many millions of migrant workers in China. The opening scene and later sequences in the film, for example, show the incredible cacophony and ensuing chaos at the train station during the New Year holiday. A sweeping panoramic shot captures thousands and thousands of people waiting with intense anticipation to take the train home. The enormity of this mass undertaking is underscored by the text on the screen informing viewers that more than 130 million migrant workers journey home only once a year, during the New Year. Other scenes in the factories or on the train reveal the hardships and challenges these workers face: unaffordable health care, no pension and no safety net. Last Train Home is a rare achievement. It tells a compelling personal story within a social and political context, a cogent reminder that the personal is political.
Lixan Fan was born and raised in China and moved to Montreal in 2006. Luckily for him, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang was looking for a sound recorder who could speak a specific Chinese dialect for his film Up the Yangtze. Lixan, who had worked as a journalist for CCTV, a Chinese television network, began working on the film as a soundman and soon began doing other work on the film, eventually earning the title of associate producer.
Lixan discussed his feature-length debut Last Train Home in a recent phone interview. Last Train Home is currently screening in New York at the IFC Center and opens September 17 in Los Angeles and September 24 in the San Francisco Bay Area, through Zeitgeist Films.
IDA: When did you start thinking about making Last Train Home?
Lixan Fan: About four years ago when we were shooting Up the Yangtze. During a break in filming, I went on a research trip to Guangzhou, where there are thousands of factories. I went to search for potential subjects for my film. I met many families and interviewed about 40 people. I was lucky that I met the Zhangs. The mother told me their story and I found it immediately impressive. She and her husband had been working in factories for 16 years and only go home during the [Chinese] New Year. They've probably spent [a total of] less than a year with their daughter. They have a grandmother back home and they do this trip every year. I thought their story really stood out and could help me explore many different aspects, like how family structure is being impacted by migrant work. So I asked them if they would be interested in being filmed.
IDA: How did you ask them?
LF: I told them I was making a film about migrant workers. At the beginning they were somewhat cautious about being in the film. Of course they understood that it is a big commitment and it may have a big impact on their family. In the migrant world, you don't really trust strangers, and you can't really make friends because work moves so often. Someone sitting next to you one day may be gone the next day.
I opened myself up and told them my own story about why I am making this film. I told them, "It's about something much bigger; I want to work with you to tell the story of the hundreds of millions of migrant workers."
They felt it was their responsibility to give a voice to their peer workers. So they agreed to be filmed, and as time went by we had a really strong relationship. I didn't know we would be filming for three years, but I kept going back year after year. Essentially we became one big family.
IDA: When did you begin shooting?
LF: We did some shooting that first trip. We used some of that footage. The [principle] shooting started June/July in 2006. Every year I would go back to the city and countryside. Over three years, I spent five months each year shooting.
In the factory, life was robotic: eat, work, go back to sleep. I spent more time in the factory. I always think that this topic deserves this amount of time to be invested. I asked my crew to always go there every day to hang out with the workers and the subjects. Sometimes we would wait until midnight to follow them back home. By investing this amount of time, we managed to get some really nice footage.
After [the Zhangs] spent so much time with us, they were very comfortable with us. When the father went to see the daughter to persuade her to come back home during New Year's, I asked permission to film from another room. They talked about their own lives and at the end we got a couple lines that are very emotional.
IDA: You captured so many personal, intimate moments. Was there a particular time during production when you felt you were able to go more deeply into the family relationships?
LF: The tipping point was when the daughter and the father had a big fight. That was a tough moment for me. I felt I should be objective. On the other hand, you spend so much time together, it's like seeing my family fight; I care about them. It was a really big dilemma for me. I struggled for ten seconds or so, and I actually went in the frame. To me it's a very human reaction. I surrendered myself to my basic emotion, rather than my rational emotion. Was it right or wrong? I went in and separated them. Later on I sat with the father, and spoke with him for a long time. I asked him if it was OK to use the scene in the film.
I was never sure if it was the right thing or the wrong thing to walk into the scene. It really changed the dynamic of the film. In the editing, I was quite nervous about putting it into the film; I thought it might be too harsh. I thought that even though the parents agreed, maybe it was too violent. My editor Mary Stephens told me that as a director, I shot the scene and the footage speaks for itself. The audience deserves to see the truth. Once I shoot it, it's not my property. I don't have the right to hide it. It's such an emotional thing.
IDA: Did you ask for permission for each time you filmed?
LF: For special things, we would ask for permission [from the family] out of respect. For example, it was a village tradition for the first day of the New Year to go and pray at the temple. It was a very private moment. So I asked the mother if we could film, and she let me follow her. For things like that, I ask for permission. But other than that, the family was totally fine with us filming.
I didn't have a problem filming in China. To film in the factory, we asked for permission from the factory owners. It took a lot of time. At the train station, we were actually fine. It wasn't as difficult as I would have expected, but we had an all-Chinese crew. Also, I used to work for CCTV. I had some friends helping me, and they talked to people. We had been filming there for three years. The first year was more difficult but we come back the second year and they were less cautious. Also, that year was the big snowstorm; thousands of people were stuck at the station and there was a big media war [to cover the story]. There was one moment in the railway station when the situation got really tense. A girl was carried over the tops of people's heads. At the time, a high-ranking official saw us shooting and stopped us from filming. We stopped and we went back to our home base. Then we copied the footage we had on a hard drive and sent copies to Beijing and Canada. But we went back the next day to film and it was fine.
IDA: Did you show the film to the family?
LF: I gave a DVD to the family and they saw it. The father told me that it was very sad for him to see the family story on the screen. I could see how sad he was about his daughter. The mother said she still couldn't see why their daughter was so angry. The daughter didn't want to see it. She's 20 years old and recently lost her job working in a hotel. I met her two months ago; she's looking for a new job and she has a boyfriend. She seems to be happy.
IDA: What has the audience response been like?
LF: Quite positive; people really liked the film. The film has been shown in a few Chinese film festivals, in Shanghai and at the Guanzhou documentary film festival, which was really surprising to me. We went through the censorship board.
In Guanzhou, the audience was really young people. I had students tell me that after watching the film, it was like watching their own lives. I also had migrant workers coming to me, and a theater worker said she saw half the film and couldn't stop crying. We're working on getting the film in Chinese cinemas, working through the film bureau, but I don't know if it will happen.
I was very surprised that the film could screen in the Shanghai Film Festival, the largest film festival in China. Before the Olympics everyone was saying China was changing, but after the Olympics it actually got worse.
IDA: You mean worse in terms of state control?
LF: Yes, state control. There's definitely more state control.
IDA: What has been the audience response around the world?
LF: In North America, they are quite conscious in finding the message and how they can help alleviate the life conditions of the migrant. They also ask questions about why millions have to undertake such a life. I'm especially happy to see that many people think about themselves and the cheap products that are made by the migrants. By making the film, I was trying to show the other side of what's behind the cheap product.
IDA: So you were trying to show the human story of what's behind the "Made in China" label.
LF: Yes, people have to endure such constant separation from their families. It's such an immense human cost for a product that we consume.
IDA: What do you hope people come away with after they see the film?
LF: I hope they understand that their lives in the developed world are somehow connected to migrants as well. Globalization has brought it all together. I hope people will be more cautious about capitalism and globalization and think about how we can all come up with a better plan. I don't mean to make this film to accuse the government. Everyone has this problem. The factories in developing countries are being exploited by corporations. What can everyone do to change it? I think that's a question I want the audience to have. I had always wanted to get this message across. I was very consciously trying to get this moment that would help me say this message.
IDA: What are you working on next?
LF: China's clean energy project. The government is building the world's largest wind farm in the Gobi Desert, and has said it will spend ten years building it. So I will be following this story. They started two years ago. I was in the Gobi Desert last year and I plan to go back later this year.
Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer and editor in Berkeley, California.