Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Last Train Home

Lixin Fan (director), Mandarin Chinese, 2009, 90m

This beautifully colored documentary is a panorama of the landscapes, economy and society of modern China.

It's a film about trains and train journeys. There is something mystic about trains. Cinema has a whole spectrum of trains, mirroring the million moods and seasons of life--the joys, the heartbreaks, the grandeur. Trains are beautiful. Trains can be cruel too.

David Lean loved trains. He gave us magnificent train sequences in  Lawrence of Arabia,  The Bridge on the River Kwai and Dr. Zhivago. The train arriving at Krakow at the beginning of Schindler's List hurtles us backwards in time to the beginning of the end. Another one in the middle of the same film fumes into the death camp, fuming monster-like at it's nostrils. The hero in Bimal Roy's unforgettable Hindi film, Devdas, having lost in love, set's out on a self destructive journey. In Casablanca, the rainy railway station is the venue of eternal separation. The  ghost train in Shoah pulls us back to an unearthly hell, as it heads for the now peaceful village of Treblinka. Trains symbolize death and rebirth, hope and despair, arrival and departure. One of the saddest of trains is at the end of 1935 Anna Karenina, as it disappears into the future after Anna's (Greta Garbo) fatal leap ( Youtube link below).

The train in Lixin Fan's movie slivers through the heart of present day China, exposing voluminous gorges spanned by dizzy bridges, lately mushroomed metropolises with complex loops of  fly-overs  which look no different from those elsewhere, and a thousand year old countryside. A land of breathtaking variety is revealed in the train's serpentine progress.

The train transports Mr and Mrs Zhang, working in a garment factory to their distant village at another extreme of the country on a long journey encompassing many climatic extremes. They are going home for the New Year holiday. This seems like their Christmas time, when everybody wants to be home, and this is the only time in the course or the year that they get to see their two children--sixteen year old daughter Quin and a boy. This has been going on for sixteen years and they have left the village to toil for their children's education. But Quin has other ideas and feels bored in this beautiful farm and goes away to the city to find work, earn money so she can be part of the brave new world of malls, movies and boyfriends.

But the train itself is the most important character and getting a ticket at New Year time is not an easy thing because this is the time when this annual largest population transfer in history--involving 130 million people!--takes place. The film opens at the station and we see the dense sea of humanity canopied under thousands of many hued umbrellas, as people jostle in a reasonably ordered fashion through the check points and barriers. On another occasion, the trains are delayed by many hours or days, and the crowd is left stranded unprovided with food and bedding. It is a harrowing experience. What impresses me is the civilized and disciplined way this situation is handled, with the police playing a gentle but firm role in maintaining order.

Notably this is the China which has emerged from the throes of it's turbulent past. No matter the isms that prevail, what is remarkable is to have achieved a degree of symbiosis within this giga-population. This is certainly very little anarchy here.

The mills churn out jeans for foreigners whose girth is twice that of a Chinese. Poverty unhoused and tattered is still visible on the street.. The family has been torn asunder. People toil for their children. Mini skirts are in. Granny on the farm knows that studies are what matter.

The annual exodus depicted in the film is symbolic of the repeated processes of social experiment and surgery that have marked the last hundred years of it's history. The process of change has been quick and painful. We move from imperfection to imperfection. The train of history is still on the move. Quo vadis?

Clip from Anna Karenina (1935)


Nathanael Hood said...

Wonderful review on a fascinating film!

You forgot that David Lean also prominently used trains in "Brief Encounter" considered one of the top five British films of all time.

kaist455 said...

I saw the documentary yesterday. The sceneries seen through the train journey are beautiful in contrast to the modern cities, which also have their own wonder with people inside. The drama captured from the family, mainly about the generation gap, is so intimate that some awkwardness and the filmmakers' mistake in a certain scene are just a little distracting.

While watching the huge crowd agonizingly waiting for the trains, my mind immediately went back to our holiday seasons. We also experience such a migration twice a year(The One for Chinese New Year and the other one for Chinese Thanksgiving day). Lots of people, mainly from Seoul, go to their hometown with their family by cars, buses, trains, and airplanes. The stations are full of people trying to buy tickets whenever the holiday starts and we always get traffic jam report from the main highways. But this is far less stressful; after all, South Korea is a small country, and nearly everybody arrived in their destination within a day even in the worst case. Our ordeal is nothing compared to what is shown in the documentary, but our audiences will feel and understand the urge well right from the start. We also experienced that kine of social change a long time ago.

S. M. Rana said...

Nathaniel Hood

It does expand one's sphere of awareness, and it's a pleasure to watch, like oneself travelling across this strange new land, where so much has happened.

I forgot "Brief Encounter". Maybe I need to refresh Brief Encounter, Lean fan that I am. I'm in custody of "Death by Hanging" and looking forward to gloat over it.

S. M. Rana said...


Migration week is preceding November 5 this year, which is the Diwali festival, related to the subject mattr of Sita Sings the Blues, a wonderful film.

Regarding Last Train: What crowds and what crowd photography! With about one third the area India has almost the same population (1.19 billion to China's 1.34 billion). But people don't converge at one place often as we saw in the film. I got the impression that Chinese are a very organised people, possibly in view of it's totalitarian past.

Nathanael Hood said...

*Rubs Hands Together*

"Death by Hanging", eh?

You're in for a treat!

S M Rana said...


Really? It's next after the current Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, but you've seen all of him).