A documentary about the miserable lives of Chinese migrant workers is unlikely to be entertaining in a strict sense of the word, and Last Train Home does not come close. Still, the subject is interesting, and in a way encapsulates the maturation of what will soon be the world’s largest economy, its free market in action, and the generational divide that makes for an uncertain future. The largest human migration on Earth takes place prior to the Chinese New Year, as 200 million people crush onto trains to return home for a few days. Most of this throng consists of migrant workers, who see their children only for these few days, spending the rest of the year in factories working 12-18 hour shifts and eating and sleeping in cramped dorms. The parents make an extraordinary sacrifice, giving away their lives and health so their children can go to school and have better lives. Sounds simple, but is anything but. The children do not know their parents, fending for themselves or are brought up by grandparents. The lack of connection means their needs are met, but they do not understand the value of that sacrifice. They do not know what a ‘better life’ really means. A similar theme was explored in Ozu’s There Was a Father, which necessarily dealt with this generational divide. What is valued by the parent may not necessarily make sense to the offspring.
A camera crew followed one such family for a few years, and the bitter reality of daily existence is made palpable. Daily toil and the remains of the day are all we see for a large portion of screen time. A husband and wife work together in a clothing factory making size 40 pants for fat Americans, and we can gather they were lucky to find work in the same plant. They work, and eat quickly, and sleep in preparation for the next day. There are no breaks or personal time otherwise. They know they only have a limited time to make this money, as their joints harden and their backs give out. The money goes back home to pay for the schooling of their son and daughter, watched by the last remaining grandparent. There are brief phone calls, during which the only conversation is a command to study hard, and work harder. That and the yearly return home is the only contact they have with their kids.
The children left behind in the countryside work the small farm and spend their days studying in school. It is evident they love their grandmother, their recently departed grandfather, and would have difficulty recognizing their own parents. With no emotional bond, there is little regard for what their parents are giving up on their behalf, and no understanding of why they are going to school. The short answer is the striving for the ‘better life’ that is repeatedly referenced, but this is an elusive term. The children only know they do not want to be their parents, and that includes slaving away in class so they can continue to work their ass off as adults. The real answer for why the struggle is worth it all can only come through the understanding of many years and shared moments with one’s mother or father. This is where the parents fail, as they lack this crucial bond.
Why these two had children makes no sense to me, but I am part of this new generation that views those of the past with curiosity. Throughout human history, people have struggled to survive against nature, then struggled against each other in the organized warfare called society. Families formed the one unit worth trusting that could persevere through time. Now, individual children have enough access to information to know that they want more for themselves, in that there is something more to struggle for over and above survival. The parents here are insufferable, and it is no wonder the kids see them as annoying nags rather than role models. Leisure time seems a luxury, but those wasted hours are all that justify the work that swallows the bulk of our lives.
The son does not appear to care about school, and no amount of badgering by his mom or dad will make a difference. He only knows he does not want to work very hard. The daughter is clearly the great hope of the family, the smart one who will help support them all in the years to come. She is smart enough to see that if she drops out of school and goes to work, she will sock away enough cash to have a good time. Sounds impulsive and unwise, but we have all been there. Society expects us all to get a job and have kids, and anyone who avoids having a family is seen as odd and/or mentally ill. Anyone who feels this sort of pressure is a fiction should listen to middle-aged women talk about their unmarried friends, or perhaps parents talking about their unmarried kids. Well, this girl wants to have a bit of fun, and given the example set by her parents, she cannot run away fast enough. Is it really any better to spend your entire life in an office or factory and die of a heart attack in your mid-sixties than have some fun and be in a lower tax bracket? Is it really intrinsically wiser to raise a family rather than be the best person you can be (whatever that means to you) on your own? Perhaps we will see a global population crash within the next fifty years thanks to this phenomenon. A planet full of young adults who only want to make goods they cannot themselves afford – and none of them really give a shit. I am not sure if Marx would have appreciated this joke.
It is clear that the traditional family is in for a rough century, as most of the world lives this way. One agonizing scene in Last Train Home renders this with clarity, as an immense crowd pushes into a train station to make the New Year’s trip home. The crowd is so large that people are routinely injured; our subject parents wait five days in line for train tickets. And for what? The only reason for such an epic migration is to spend a few precious days with family. The connection is so tenuous that losing it altogether would scarcely make a difference. The daughter’s rebellious departure marks this broken link. I would hesitate to say this is the result of a capitalist system grinding away at the family unit, as these people genuinely wanted to live this way. Ambition requires sacrifice, and the husband and wife who left their oldest child behind when they were barely a year old made it clear what they would lose.
Last Train Home is tiring to watch; it would be impossible to tell such a story with any propulsive energy. Nonetheless, it is an important film, and one that is essential to get a flavor of our world economy. Essential, at least, for those of us who wear the clothing made in the sweatshops overseas that are indifferent to the lives of their workers.