Monday, September 27, 2010

Last Train Home

Fresh off of our presentation Saturday evening on the roles of the Catholic Church in a changing China (it seemed to me as if we all worked well together), the four of us yesterday took in a fascinating documentary about the effects of economic and social changes on family life in the Middle Kingdom. "Last Train Home" traces the journeys of a family of peasants from Sichuan Province who spend more than a decade living apart from one another.

"Last Train Home" chronicles the by now familiar story of two parents who leave the poor countryside and head to one of China's mega-cities to find work in manufacturing. Their two children (a girl first, then a boy...a common pattern in rural areas thanks to the one-child policy) are left behind in the care of their grandparents. Over time, the parents struggle with the separation, wondering if they are doing the right thing for their family. As for the children, neither stands out in school, and the daughter begins to rebel, eventually setting out as a teenager to make it on her own in the big city.

So, yes, this is a story that has been told many times. But "Last Train Home" brings us visually right into the middle of the family's turmoil. The cameras are rolling in the factory dormitory when the parents clean their clothes and worry out loud about what will happen to their children. The cameras are rolling when the once-a-year trip back home is delayed while family members are stranded at the Guangzhou train station for five days (five days!), along with hundreds of thousands (hundreds of thousands!) of other migrant workers. And the cameras are rolling out in the village when an altercation between the father and daughter turns terribly physical and the rest of the family stands there looking on in silence.

"Last Train Home" is the real deal. It is not for the faint of heart. But if you want an intimate look into the lives of China's fractured peasant families, "Last Train Home" is a good place to start. (We can fill in some of the gaps, if you'd like, the next time we talk.)



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