“Last Train Home”: Lixin Fan Interview
Not many first-time independent filmmakers land a coveted spot in the Sunday arts section of The New York Timesand an interview on The Leonard Lopate Show. But 33-year-old Lixin Fan, a Chinese-born Canadian immigrant who splits his time between Montreal and Beijing, has generated a lot of interest among editors at major dailies and business publications alike for his documentary Last Train Home, a film about the annual New Year’s pilgrimage of 130 million migrant workers from Guangzhou province to their homes and seldom-seen families in the rural provinces. China’s status as an economic powerhouse regularly makes front-page news, along with stories about the country’s ongoing struggles to manage crises that seem to grow directly out of frustrations among its most disenfranchised. Recent docs have explored the heady, often devastating changes wrought in China by warp-speed industrialization and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (the largest civil-engineering project in world history), including Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes and Yung Chang’s acclaimed Up the Yangtze, which Fan helped produce. But Last Train Home, which won Best Feature Documentary at IDFA 2009 and has screened at numerous festivals including Sundance, New Directors/New Films, and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, is a more intimate look at the new era of outsize industry.
For this engrossing, beautifully shot film, Fan spent three years trailing Zhang Changhua and his wife, Cheng Suqin, migrants who’ve toiled for over a decade in factories on the southeastern coast, leaving their two children in the care of their grandmother. Their lives are defined by grueling 14-hour work routines and the drive to save the pittance they earn manufacturing products for export to the U.S. The decision to ride the train home for the New Year brings a different kind of misery, as the couple find themselves stranded at the station with tens of thousands of people, all fighting for a chance to climb aboard coaches that may never arrive. Back home, the Zhangs’ sullen teenage daughter Qin, resentful of her parents’ long absence and eager to earn money instead of completing her education, turns their rare New Year’s visit into an unpleasant reckoning. Last Train Home is a forlorn portrait of dislocation and familial strife that’s intimate and often discomfiting, yet heart-wrenchingly humane in its concerns. Read the rest of my interview at Filmmaker.