Last Train Home, Lixin Fan's compelling documentary portrait of the human sacrifice behind China's economic miracle, begins with a startling statistic.
At Chinese New Year, 130 million migrant workers journey from factories in industrial cities to make their way back to rural villages and towns for an annual visit. It is the world's largest human migration, unfathomable in scope, engorging trains, buses, and boats to the degree that America's Thanksgiving commute looks like an easy hop. The jostle and bustle is not the point of Fan's emotionally involving film, which is to show the enormous gulf between the workers and the families left behind, the collateral damage of industrialization.
Fan focuses on the Zhangs, a married couple whose school-age children are in the care of their peasant grandmother. For most of the year, the Zhangs hunch over sewing machines in Guangzhou, stitching blue jeans to send money to Sichuan for their children's education.
Their only time off is the annual New Year's trip, which is more ordeal than vacation. After paying exorbitant prices for train tickets, they cram into the funnel of migrants at the station and, after days, fight their way aboard. When they arrive home days more later, they are strangers.
Their children feel abandoned, angry, and burdened by their expectations. The Zhangs want their children to do well in school so they will not have to work dead-end jobs. The implicit question is, can this family, and the millions more like it, be saved?
As Fan tells it, the Zhangs represent a family and geographic rupture specific to China - as well as the parent/child conflict that is universal. Qin, their defiant daughter, festers with anger toward her absentee parents. She thinks they care only about money, not that they are working to give her the educational opportunities they lacked.
Fan's fly-on-the-wall perspective enables the viewer to empathize with all the players in the family drama, unlikely to have a happy ending.