In recent years, one of the most exciting developments in international cinema has been the New Documentary Movement in China. These independent works, predominantly made without official sanction, are in large part an extension of the aesthetic program of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (e.g. Jia Zhang-ke, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yang), who themselves frequently apply their realist style to nonfiction filmmaking. What connects these documentarians is a desire to provide a clear-eyed, critical examination of the human, political and ecological toll that has resulted from China's embrace of bureaucratic state capitalism. What is it like to be a peasant forced to take a brutal job in a factory in order to survive? What happens when, in the name of progress, the town where you've lived all your life is destroyed by the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam? How can older generations, who have witnessed such sweeping change, find a place in the New China?
These are monumental topics — and herein lies the problem, if you want to call it that. Many examples of the New Documentary Movement tend to be sprawling and novelistic enough to make Frederick Wiseman look like YouTube. Wang Bing's West of the Tracks, the acknowledged masterwork of the genre, is nine hours and 18 minutes long. (His follow-up, Fengmeng: A Chinese Memoir, was a mere three hours. Of a single elderly woman being interviewed. In a chair. With one camera set-up.) Granted, some entries are getting shorter, such as Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town (180 minutes) and Zhao Liang's Petition (a brisk 120).
I mention all this by way of introducing Fan Lixin's Last Train Home as a sort of hybrid work, part New Chinese Documentary, part Western compromise. This is just factual, on a couple of counts. Last Train is co-produced by British, Canadian, Dutch and U.S. television services, along with Fan's own Chinese production house. But even more than this, Last Train Home is a film that is capable of being succinct (85 minutes) because it takes a problem that affects millions — the massive migration of Chinese laborers from the impoverished countryside to the industrial centers — and packages it within a tidy, fully comprehensible domestic drama.
Fan begins by showing us crushing throngs of nameless citizens in the city of Guangzhao, rushing the train station like it was the last stop on the Michael Jackson / Elvis Resurrection Tour. They're trying to get home for Chinese New Year, the only extended vacation time these workers will receive all year. Fan gradually introduces a husband and wife who work in a clothing mill. They are scrounging for tickets to Sichuan to see their teenage daughter Qin and grade-school aged son Yang, both of whom have been raised by their grandmother while Mom and Dad worked in the city. In fact, the parents moved to Guangzhao shortly after Qin was born, a major point of contention.
Fan clearly intends for this family to serve as a microcosm of the larger problem of unfettered Chinese industrialization and the splitting of families it has produced. But not until the end credits do we even learn the man and woman's names. What's more, Last Train Home becomes so enamored with its highly suspect fly-on-the-wall access to simmering familial resentments and recriminations (which eventually result in a reality-TV worthy father-daughter throwdown) that much of the larger sociopolitical context is frankly lost in the shuffle. It's certainly not "boring," but neither is it particularly enlightening. In his effort to make sure Last Train Home didn't pass uninformed Westerners by, Fan missed the boat.