"Last Train Home"

“After all, freedom is happiness.” Qin’s words seemed to pierce the camera and into the audience’s mind as she spat them out with quite suppressed aggression while her hands worked diligently to wash her work clothes. Just like that, I instantly corrected my laid-back sitting posture to a more rigid one, as if Qin could see how aloof of a comfortable life I was living as I sat in class and watched her life struggles’ documentary. 

Last Train Home captures the brutally realistic lives of the Chinese workers and the multifaceted challenges they face in and out of the workspace. The documentary shows not only their economic struggles but also the generational conflicts that exacerbate within their family because of the financial situation of the migrant workers. The film follows a married migrant couple Chen and Zhang, who has a teenage daughter Qin and a younger son Yang, to stress such conflicts. In order to correctly depict the conflict, the film assumes a unique method of switching perspectives. The first part of Last Train Home is predominantly told in the perspective of Chen and Zhang, who come across as sacrificial, loving parents who work incessantly so that their children can have a better future. However, as the documentary progresses, the focus of the narrative shifts slowly but steadily to Qin, who evidently struggles with getting along with her parents whom she feels like have done nothing for her. Yet instead of coming across as an ungrateful youth, Qin comes across quite relatable to the audience, as it is clear that she herself is also battling between her independence and her parents’ sacrifice. This is especially interesting because it shows how a sacrifice for one can become a spite for another. Qin constantly sees herself as the problem and the shame of the family as her parents are away and “sacrificing everything” to give her and her brother a “better life.” The kinship she feels with her parents who left when she was only a toddler is minimal and only understood by head, thus when Chen and Zhang returns home for the holidays, she feels suffocated and violated, even commercialized, as her parents asserts the need for getting excelling grades so she can grow up to earn lots of money. Such generational blockage is exploited in the film quite luridly, and the feeling of discomfort does not get resolved as the conflict itself is so deeply rooted and unsolvable. 

The film depicts this muted yet glaring conflict throughout the entire documentary by adequately paralleling it to the grueling migration on the train itself. The discrepancy between Chen and Zhang’s sacrificial intentions for the kids and Qin (and possibly even Yang)’s emotional distance and spite towards her absent parents, parallels with the asphyxiating travel and the obstacles migrant workers have to overcome in order to finally go “home,” only to find out home is nowhere to be found. Absence will always be distorted, and the privation felt by those who were left behind is just as devastating as that of the ones who left. Ultimately, Qin’s decision to leave school and work at the factory in the city was not to leave home, but to find one of her own. The violent fight scene between Qin and her father is a breaking point for not only the film but also Qin and her family, as Qin confronts her parents about how she was constantly left to feel like a parasite in the household who brings misfortune and misery to all including her parents. She then looks straight into the camera —to the voyeurs— and screams that we have just met the real Qin that we asked for. And yet we, as spectators, who in fact did ask to see the real Qin, is left in intense discomfort to actually meet her. 

The way the documentary ended was an excellent report of the continuance of the struggles the film attempted to encapsulate. The family that seemed to stand so strong in the beginning is torn apart — Qin away in the city to work and support herself, Chen working more hours at the factory, and Zhang going back home to salvage the damage done yet perhaps a little too late as Qin had already left both physically and emotionally. Nothing is resolved. If anything, things are worse than where they were at the beginning of the film. Yet it is an excellent blow of reality, perhaps to the audience — to us — who is probably sitting there watching the transcript of Qin, Chen, and Zhang’s lives, coming up with analysis and writing response papers.