“Last Train Home” Review – The heart, soul & meaning of “Made in China”

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The 2010 Sundance & SXSW screened and award-winning documentary “Last Train Home” is starting its screenings at Calgary Globe theatre tomorrow Friday March 19, 2010. The film will also be screened in the HKIFF on March 26th & 29th.

To me, Last Train Home indirectly exposed to us the heart, soul & meaning of those inexpensive “Made in China” goods and the human cost/impact of these goods through the eyes of one Chinese migrant family. Last Train Home is a film that I greatly enjoyed and found extremely touching and insightful.

In the beginning of the film, the viewers are informed that,

There are over 130 million migrant workers in China. They go home only once a year, during Chinese New Year. This is the world’s largest human migration.

Last Train Home is the debut film by Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan and he has done a wonderful job in telling an emotionally engaging story and the film was beautifully shot. As a documentary filmmaker myself, I watched the film three times over different days before I write this review. And I enjoyed the film more as I watched it.

I came away with the intense feeling that it is the Chinese migrant workers’ rights to improve their living standards, no matter how harsh it may seem to us Westerners. Yes, it came with a price, sometimes the prices can be very high. But, as I get older, I am reluctant to be judgemental and pronounce the western ways are the “best” for Chinese or other citizens of the world. There isn’t a single way to pursue a better life.

A great documentary makes us think and want to talk about the various issues discussed or not discussed in the film and it will make us care about the people in the film. Using these yardsticks, Last Train Home has succeeded and is definitely a great documentary. By chance, the film included one of the worst winters in recent Chinese New Years where train and bus services were seriously disrupted. And that added some urgency into the film.

There is one scene (when the parents had an argument with their child) in the film that shaken and touched me at the same time. As a documentary filmmaker, I kept asking myself, what would I have done if I were filming in the same situation? I finally came to the “uneasy” but “responsible” rationale that supported my instinct. I would have done the same thing and kept filming like Lixin. There was a story to be told and because of the trusting relationship that was built over months, it was ok to keep shooting.

By the way, please see the bottom of this blog entry where you can read an excerpted analysis/discussion by my economist friend Dr. Zhaofeng Xue (薛兆丰) about the problems associated with the Chinese New Year transportation nightmares (“春运综合症”).

Here is an excerpt from the synopsis of the film,

Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos, as all at once, a tidal wave of humanity attempts to return home by train. It is the Chinese New Year. The wave is made up of millions of migrant factory workers. The homes they seek are the rural villages and families they left behind to seek work in the booming coastal cities. It is an epic spectacle that tells us much about China, a country discarding traditional ways as it hurtles towards modernity and global economic dominance.

Last Train Home, an emotionally engaging and visually beautiful debut film from Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan, draws us into the fractured lives of a single migrant family caught up in this desperate annual migration.

Here is a trailer of the film for the famous SXSW,


Economics analysis/discussion re chaos with train transportations around the Chinese New Years (“春运综合症”)

My friend Dr. Zhaofeng Xue (薛兆丰) has written for more than 10 years about the problems associated with the Chinese New Year transportation nightmares. In Feb 2010, he wrote about this topic again in this Chinese blog entry, “火车票低价造成了举国浪费“. Very insightful stuff if you read Chinese. Here is an excerpt,

“[低票价造成举国浪费] 火车票价不够高,其经济之恶,是那些用于排长队、拨电话、托关系、找黄牛、扫黄牛所耗费的努力,数以千万人的精疲力竭的努力,从整个社会上看,是被白白消耗掉的。如果这些人这段时间的努力,是用于通过他们的专业技能来服务他人,然后再把赚到的钱用以竞争火车票,那么这些乘客在争得火车票的同时,其努力也造福了其他人,也转化成了社会的财富。但现在的情况是,火车票以低价销售,人们靠排队来竞争。这种分配方式,必然引发利己不利人的资源耗散,而这种资源耗散只有通过提高票价才能消除。应该认识到,讨论火车票价问题并非“你比较重视效率就赞成提价、我比较重视公平就反对提价”的主观问题,而是一个如何消除社会浪费的客观问题。”

Zhaofeng received his Phd from George Mason University and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Northwestern University School of Law. Here is a link to my congratulatory message to Zhaofeng when his book about antitrust was published in 2008.

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