Though a documentary, and one that exposes a horrifying ritual to likely ignorant Westerners, Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home has the shape of classic tragedy. The subject is the Chinese custom of letting its migrant workers return home to their families only once a year. At 130 million workers, it’s the planet’s largest human migration, and Fan's cameras visit the overflowing stations and clogged trains thrice. Out of the masses, Last Train Home focuses on the Zhangs, a couple who toil in a garment factory and send their money to remote Sichuan, hoping their two kids won’t face the same life of comfortable misery.
But Qin, their teenage daughter, sick of loneliness and studying, decides to quit school and follow her folks. Their already slim relationship is sorely tried, and pretty soon our subjects don’t mind throwing full-on smackdowns in front of their documentarians.
Filmed over three years, Last Train Home has been ably whittled down to an air-tight narrative. Every sentence spoken bolsters the theme of a family broken by a cruel national practice; every scene conveys their despair.
In fact, in this age of Exit Through the Gift Shop, I’m Still Here and Catfish, it’s often downright fishy. Fan films in the verité style of D.A. Pennebaker and Frederik Wiseman, but the film doesn’t always feel genuine—whole scenes consist entirely of bald exposition, as when Qin’s disappointing decision to drop out of school causes her mother to say, simply, that she’s disappointed in Qin’s decision to drop out of school. Others are blatantly staged, unless the Zhangs let Fan hang out with them as they chatted in bed.
That’s not to say what happened didn’t happen—just that Fan wasn’t above restaging certain scenes his cameras may have missed. But Last Train Home, suspiciously or not, is a stronger story than most manufactured stories. However inauthentic it sometimes may be, it’s true enough.