This market-oriented capitalism, coming to a socialist – or if you want to use the word, totalitarian – country, it’s this weird mixture of two completely contradicting things combined together and doing a lot of crazy things to its people. Completely disrupting the traditional family relationships.
— Lixin Fan, director Last Train Home
When I left the screening of Lixin Fan’s documentary film Last Train Home last Friday night, I stepped outside, gulped down some fresh air, and enjoyed the fact that I could simply breathe. My first reaction to this amazingly effective documentary about migrant labor in China was that it was the most depressing and claustrophobic film I have seen in a long time. Indeed, it is depressing and claustrophobic on many levels, but it is also exceptionally real, intimate, and devastatingly beautiful. The repercussions of the fierce consuming beast of global capitalism on China’s peasant class is depressing and claustrophobic, but that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on the reality of migrant workers who are at odds with this new economic system that has left a massive class of people alienated from themselves, their families, and any chance for a better future. Last Train Home may not be a feel good movie, but it sure is a feel real movie, and it’s important that audiences see this side of real.
The documentary covers a three year period of time by following one migrant family – the Zhangs – as the parents (Zhang Changhua and his wife Cheng Suqin) try to provide economic stability for their children while living under an impossible economic regime that forces them to work in sweat factories in Guangzhou while their two children are being raised by their grandmother in the countryside. The parents first left for Guangzhou when their daughter Qing was only eight months old, and now they only see their children once a year when the factories close for the Chinese New Year. The film derives its title from the trains that transport over 130 million migrant factory workers back home once a year during the Chinese New Year. Referred to as the world’s largest human migration, this mass exodus is like a rising tidal wave of human labor waiting to burst and explode at any moment. A dense sea of factory workers surges on train platforms as millions of desperate factory workers try to catch trains home to see their families. These workers spend the entire year separated from their families simply to earn enough money to provide food, shelter and education for their children. The sight of seeing this mass of people clamber for trains to transport them out of a life of labor for one small window of time is so desperately devastating. Lixin Fan’s documentary hones in on one specific family, one set of faces within that giant tidal wave of workers, and by bringing us intimately close to the family, he shows in no uncertain terms the toll that global capitalism has taken on the Chinese peasant class.
Lixin Fan met the Zhang family while he was touring factories in Guangzhou, and he subsequently spent three years intimately shooting the family through their daily lives. Following the Zhangs through such recent history as the economic boom and glut of Chinese manufacturing and export products in the mid 2000’s to the Beijing Olympics and the economic crash of 2008, Fan’s microscopic look at this family gives us an intimate portrait of the Chinese peasant-turned-labor class under China’s present day capitalist regime. When I say intimate view, I mean that throughout the film, it is like we are in the room with the Zhang family, Fan and his camera. Fan’s presence and his camera becomes as integrated into the Zhangs’ lives as the parents’ sewing machines in the factory. The camera is so intimately placed within the family that it brings us front and center into their lives, and we are right there with them. We sit next to the mother and father as they bend over their sewing machines, talk about the importance of education for their children, and wonder why their daughter Qin hates the mother so much. We are in the room with the family when the father and daughter explode into a fist fight over the use of the word “fuck.” We are in the room with them when the mother and father lie in their small dorm bed, their jaws set tight in an emotional stew of recognition, resignation, and determination. We are in the room with them as the grandmother’s eyes tear up at the fate of her family.
Three years of filming, and there are no more barriers between the family and the camera. We pay witness to the Zhang family life in all its naked, uncompromising, and unflinching truth. Distilling 300 hours of raw footage into a profoundly dense and effective 81 minutes, Fans’s close look at this one family shows the mass conflict within the current Chinese economic landscape. We see the ghost of China’s socialist/totalitarian past in conflict with its market-driven capitalist present. We see the conflict between the now-obsolete traditional rural life and the new urbanization under capitalism. We see the conflict between the older generation who still clings to Chinese tradition and the younger generation who is seduced by the very Western products and economic system that have destroyed their families and consumed their parents’ lives. Throwing us into the claustrophobic yet excruciatingly human portrait of this family, the film throws us into the frontlines of labor in China and the largest migrant labor population in the world. Yet, by intimately focusing on the daily lives of a single family, Fan’s film resists being just a piece of political propaganda. It does not overtly politicize. It just shows the truth of existence, and in so doing the audience feels and experiences life with the Zhang family and life as a migrant worker in China. We are inside the film with them, and there is no denying life as it unfolds before our eyes.
I told [the Zhangs], “I’m not making this film just for myself; it’s not about you, as well, it’s really a film about 130 million migrants, your fellow workers, [who] are so essential, so important to this country. [With] all the frustration you have to face day today, I do feel the urgency for us to work together.”
Claustrophobia is the dominating atmosphere in this movie. It is suffocating and all-consuming as we experience 81 minutes of a family utterly trapped by labor and class. The Zhang parents’ entire life has been consumed and defined by work. They have become labor. It is all they have, all they are, and all they can hope to be. They are alienated from their own lives as well as from the lives of their children who they only see once a year. Whether the Zhangs are hunched over their sewing machines pushing denim under the needle, washing their hands and feet in a bucket of water, or lying in their curtained bed in the tight confines of their dilapidated factory dorm, there is barely room to breathe, see, or think in the space of their life. Their destiny has been sealed inside the boxes of blue jeans being shipped to American malls, and there is not a remote chance for them to escape their circumstances. The best they can hope for is that their children will have a better life.
Everything in the Guangzhou scenes is layered with a kind of sooty haze, the inescapable grime of labor that refuses to let in any light or air. Even when the camera pulls back from its close focus on the Zhangs, we see a city skyline clotted with towering poverty – slum factories with their dilapidated slum housing, people penned together in factories, on sidewalks, or on the platforms of train stations. The workers are surrounded by stacks and stacks of the products of their labor. Bundles of blue jeans are heaped in corners like totems of alienating production. Men sit on stacks of blue jeans while they eat their lunch. Babies sleep on piles of blue jeans as their parents bend over sewing machines making even more blue jeans. Boxes and boxes are stuffed with jeans, labeled “Made In China” and hauled on the backs of young workers who look like they should be taking their high school math test instead of working in the factory slums of Guangzhou. The camera returns time and again to the Zhangs’ hands as they push denim fabric through their sewing machines and fret over the future of their children. That the movie focuses on the production of blue jeans, one of the ultimate symbols of American consumer culture, shows the role that western capitalism plays in the film’s overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. These workers are drowning in the products of their labor. As China adopted western economics and applied it on a kind of mass socialist scale, a whole population of people became slaves to capital. And we witness them on the frontlines sewing blue jeans while their children are hundreds of miles away.
Migrant workers are the cornerstone behind this Chinese “economic miracle.” In a way, they’re denied what they deserve compared to [what] their contribution [is]. They have to bear family separation, they work very long hours in poor conditions, and they get paid so little. Since they don’t have Medicare or retirement or any social support, they have to save every penny, send it back to support the family, and be prepared for an emergency. I felt this was not right.
— Lixin Fan
The Zhangs’ life as witnessed in this documentary, and subsequently the life of all the working poor under China’s new economic policies, takes “making do” to a whole new level. The economics of global capital and how it plays out in export production in China creates massive inequality and division between modernized China and the old peasant class. In a system that plays on the socialist traditions of “working for the overall good of the country” to exploit workers and benefit global corporate interests, life for the working poor under this new economy is brutal, life-stealing, and one step removed from indentured servitude. Working round the clock seven days a week with no benefits, no unemployment insurance, and no welfare, the Zhangs have no choice but to give their lives entirely to working for the capitalist system or be left destitute and have more nothing than the nothing they already have. They desperately try to break the cycle of poverty through hard work by providing education for their children, but then they witness their daughter Qin turn her back on them and rebel against their beliefs as she buys into the very system that her parents are attempting to free her from. We watch Qin as she literally bears the burden of her family’s history by hauling crops from the field. Torn between the impossible world of the past (life in the countryside where farming has become obsolete) and the brutal world of the present (factory jobs in the city), Qin sees her only chance for liberation in the allure of the very products her parents produce in the factories. Following the path of her indoctrination into Western culture (brought to her by McDonalds, American television and the internet), Qin drops out of school and goes to work in factories so she can earn money and chase the illusion of economic freedom. Ironically, her sense of freedom comes in the form of the very products – the ones that her parents produce in the factory – that have denied her family freedom.
With her first pay check in her pocket, Qin heads to the mall with another girl who works in the factory, and they exercise their new economic freedom by engaging in Western consumerism. Stopping in a beauty parlor for a makeover, Qin gets ringlets in her hair. The stylist tells her that she “looks like a Barbie doll. All foreigners look like that.” Qin runs her fingers through her ringlets, and her body becomes a map of conflicting cultures – her Chinese face and body donning the costume of Western culture which can be bought for the right price at the mall. With their new hairdos, the girls hit the clothing aisles. Looking at a pair of jeans she wants to buy, Qin asks, “I wonder if these were made in our factory.” This is such a perfect Marxian moment in which Qin shows her relationship to the products of her labor by desiring the very products that she and her family produce and that have broken their lives and their backs.
The movie is full of little moments that illuminate the relationship (a.k.a. servitude) of Chinese workers to American consumerism and how much that relationship controls their position as laborers. For example, in another moment, one of the workers in the factory holds up a pair of blue jeans and laughs at how big they are. He says, “You could fit two Chinese in one pair of American jeans because Americans are all fat.” Of course, he means literally fat, but he is also referring to the fat in the economy of American excess. In another scene, Qin’s father states, “In China, we earn $2000 a month and save $1800 for our children. In America, they earn $2000 and spend $2000 and more.” As Fan continues to follow the Zhang family, we see the results of that American economic fat. The camera eventually ends up in a factory that has been closed down after the economic collapse of 2008. A couple of lifeless sewing machines stand like skeletons in the empty factory, now gutted of workers and jobs. No piles of blue jeans here, just a stark reminder of where American consumer excess and the capitalist culture that promoted it led the country and subsequently the world.
Qin eventually quits her job at the factory and goes to work in a high-end urban nightclub. We are introduced to the “army” of waiters and waitresses as they recite a chant of solidarity in labor to “entertain and serve” the costumers. This scene powerfully illustrates the legacy of China’s socialist totalitarian past as it manifests itself in the new economy of global capitalism. The workers all wear military-like uniforms and chant their loyalty as if they are serving under Chairman Mao rather than serving the owners of a posh nightclub. The army of workers (heirs to the peasant and laboring class) weave in and out of throngs of new money young hipsters gyrating to techno disco on the dance floor. Serving over-priced ludicrously excessive cocktails, the uniformed workers absorb this new economy in the only way they are able – by serving it. In one of the nightclub scenes, the workers stand around a television watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. This scene brilliantly shows the merging of China’s traditional past with its new fierce economy. The television broadcasts the ceremony that plays on ancient Chinese traditions while the uniformed workers who the rapidly moving train of global capital has left behind watch in wonderment and alienation.
The traditional past comes to surface in the scenes at the family home in the countryside. Though the farm life is still a tough life of labor as seen in the images of Qin hauling giant baskets of crops on her back, it is also a life that is completely separate from the smog and sweat filled congestion of Guangzhou. When Fan and his camera spend time in the countryside, it is like we step out of time and into a forgotten past. We see the traditional past when Qin goes to her dead grandfather’s shrine and talks to his ghost. We see it when the camera hones in on a blade of grass and a dragonfly. We see it when Qin and her brother sit on the edge of a wall and look out over the great expanse of green countryside. We see it in the grandmother’s eyes as she tells her stories around the dinner table. We see it in an incredibly heartbreaking moment when the mother prays to Buddha for her daughter’s future. The screen fills with ash and smoke as the mother feeds the fire under the statue of Buddha. Tears run down the mother’s face as she desperately asks Buddha to look after her girl. It is a heartbreaking moment that shows the utterly desperate situation and dislocation that has been forced on this family by China’s economic policies. Where is Buddha in this economy where parents are forced to abandon their children simply to feed, clothe and educate them? Where is Buddha in an economy where parents are completely consumed by hard labor and only see their children for a brief window of time once a year? Where is Buddha in this world where millions of migrant laborers are left on a train platform without enough trains to take them home?
The conflict between past and present, old traditions and the new Westernized economy, and parents and children comes to a boil in an enormously effective scene during one of the family’s visits in the countryside for the Chinese New Year. The scene is already ripe with tension between the daughter who has quit school and the parents who have spent their lives bent over sewing machines trying to ensure that their child gets an education and a better life. Qin harbors no shortage of resentment towards her mother for abandoning her to go work in the factories, and her resentment surfaces as she rebels against everything her parents stand for and curses at her mother by using the word “fuck.” The father is outraged at her language, and Qin and her father go fist-to-cuffs over the word fuck. The father explodes in rage, hits Qin and knocks her to the ground. She comes up fighting, and the word fuck is thrown around the room like some kind of lethal weapon that has entered and corrupted their home. The scene, an actual unscripted spontaneous moment that occurred in the Zhang family’s life, is both hilarious and tragic. Sure, we derive humor as the father repeats the word fuck, but our laughter is a Western response. The word fuck is like the language equivalent of a Big Mac, and its presence in the Zhang home is just as toxic. When Qin’s use of the word fuck causes such a violent outbreak in the Zhang home, it is like the literalization of the violence of the global economy and American influence on China’s economic landscape. The Zhangs don’t just spend their lives slaving over sewing machines for anyone. They do it to make blue jeans for the Big Mac consuming and “fuck” wielding Americans on the other side of the ocean. Qin using the word fuck to attack her mother is like throwing the whole wasteful lot of American culture and its influence on her life and her future into her mom’s face. The expressions on the mother’s face during this scene and the entire movie are heartrending and devastating to watch. So much conflict, so much determination and defeat all wrapped together. So much effort to find life remotely bearable when she lives in an unbearable economic environment. And this is not acting. This is reality. The camera just brings us there to witness it.
The train scenes for which the film is titled really bring to light the mass effect of the new economy on the working poor as a sea of laborers carrying their luggage on their shoulders surges on the train platform and pushes their way onto overcrowded, oversold trains. The trains also become the connective tissue between the traditional past of the countryside and the new cannibalistic economy of industrial urban life. Fan pulls the camera back and shows us the train working its way through the mountains that connect city and country. We look out the train windows through the eyes of the Zhangs as they head home and watch the city recede in the distance and rural landscape go by like a dream from the past. We also see through their eyes as the leave the countryside and return to the working prison of their lives in the city, and we feel their position and class close in on them like so much smog and concrete.
During the second year of filming the Zhang family, a huge snowstorm hit China, and the trains were delayed during the Chinese New Year. Lixin Fan was on the train platform with the Zhangs and a desperate mass of workers as they waited for trains that showed no sign of arriving. This scene epitomizes the claustrophobic desperation of this massive population of workers. The police line up in formation in a futile attempt to contain the desperate mass of laborers. The workers have not eaten for days as they are penned on the train platform with their luggage on their shoulders. They are trapped. There is no way out, and tears run down the workers’ faces as they try to fight their way to the front of the platform for a train that is nowhere in sight. It is a tidal wave of desperate labor, absolute chaos and the literal embodiment of a whole system that is failing – the economic system, the labor system, the law system, the train system. The camera follows the Zhangs as they miraculously work their way through the crowd and eventually get on a train home, but their victory is small and is really just a kind of symbol of their defeat. We watch them squeeze onto that train, knowing that by the time they get home, they’ll have a few hours with their family before they turn around and go back into the economic prison of hard work and blue jeans. What kind of life is this that is totally defined and consumed by labor?
This massively desperate train scene is a perfect example of how Lixin Fan’s film works to be both intimate in focus yet global in scale. The camera becomes a part of the Zhang family’s life, but as such it also becomes a window onto the lives of millions of migrant workers in China, the ones we see on that train platform. By focusing on one family within this mass sea of exploited labor, the film allows us to experience what life is like for over 130 million people who desperately hit the train platforms once a year and to feel what those train rides mean to them. That Lixin Fan (who served as director, cinematographer and editor) could so effectively distill three years of film into a powerhouse 81 minutes is a testament to his filmmaking skills. By spending three years with this family, he puts a real face on mass labor that is unforgettable and unshakable. But he also very quietly allows us to see the role that the American economy plays in defining the claustrophobic terms of these workers’ existence. In one scene, we simply see an extended shot of Maersk containers on a loading dock. We know that those containers are filled with boxes of “Made In China” merchandise being shipped overseas for American consumption. The lives and hard work of the Zhangs and the millions of migrant workers whose lives are dominated by manufacturing products to feed global capitalism and help maintain China’s position as a global economic force are also sealed inside those containers. I’ve never cared much for “Made In China” tags, but now I will never look at another “Made In China” label without seeing this family and the faces of all those other desperate workers fighting to get onto a train back home.
Lixin Fan quotes from Filmmaker Magazine Blog, September 1, 2010.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com.