Docs & the Law Blog

Penn Law

Due East: A Re-view of “Last Train Home”

March 14, 2014
  • Poster from "Last Train Home"
    Poster from "Last Train Home"

By Michael L. Wong

I watched “Last Train Home,” the 2009 documentary by Chinese filmmaker Fan Lixin about a family of Chinese migrant workers, for the second time last night.  I still love it and if you haven’t seen it, you should. (There is more information, including the trailer, on the film’s PBS POV site:

There is no clear line between documentaries and narrative films; the genres overlap plenty.  But the painstaking way Fan set up each shot in this film makes you wonder how much he actively directed his subjects.  Is it still a documentary if Fan asked his subjects to wait while he set up the camera and yelled “action” before they drove their motorcycle into the shot and then asked for a second take when the timing wasn’t perfect? 

That’s not important.  Whatever his methods, Fan achieved the pinnacle of art in any form.  He took the ordinary and made it extraordinary. 

The first time I watched this film, I hadn’t moved to China yet.  I was still a lawyer in New York City.  I viewed it more from the POV of a sympathetic, slightly patronizing American.  Life is tough in China.  There’s like a billion people there.  Sweatshops and whatnot.  Man, that’s tough.   

I’ve been in Beijing scraping by as a videomaker for more than two years now.  I left the luxurious wash of the corporate whirlpool.  I know how it feels to stand in a dusty, smoky waiting hall full of human-smell and grime and wish for a clean breeze and an uncontaminated glass of water. 

“A billion people” is no longer academic to me.  I am acquainted with the 老百姓 (Lao Bai Xing), a term poetically translated as the “Eternal Infinitude of Humanity.”  They are the dusty, downtrodden folks on the streets talking loudly, shoving and grabbing, and cheating you out of a dime. 

 “Last Train Home” went to those same sordid street corners and made heroes, martyrs and queens of them all.  Under Fan’s masterful direction,Fan LixinFan Lixin his subjects became larger-than-life, filling up the big screen. It’s an accomplishment greater than anything Hollywood can produce … because it’s real. 

Two years ago, our male protagonist – the father of few words – really ticked me off.  Watching in my Brooklyn Heights living room, I remember my fruitless attempts to speak out at the TV, trying to fill words in for the poor guy when he had none.  I viewed his stoicism as weakness.  Wasn’t he to blame for his family’s implosion?  If only he were articulate (like me), he’d talk some sense into his daughter, demand a raise from his boss, tell his wife he loves her, and save the day in the general Hollywood sense.

I was way too American then.  Now I understand why he holds back.  What could he possibly say?  His daughter is a teenager in the Internet age.  China is getting rich faster than anyone can manage. The forces at play are beyond any individual’s control.  The global economy can’t be wished away.

Our hero found his strength in silence and I don’t blame him anymore.  What else can he (or any of us) do but jabber less, listen more, work harder and hope for the best? 

Shuffling slowly through the packed subway station jammed five deep to the wall, I look at all the Chinese faces streaming by and start to panic.  I have to shut down my senses and withdraw to an inner place.  If I take the time to look at each of these thousands of faces (upon thousands in all the subways in China), and think of each as an individual with a unique story, filled with joy and suffering, with the same desires and dreams as me, I would simply vanish into thin air.  I, Michael L. Wong, would no longer be a Made-in-America snowflake who can justify living in the capital of Beijing with air-conditioning and clean bathrooms, drinking imported water and sleeping in a private bedroom.

Is that guilt?  If yes, then Fan’s film assuages.  Because at least the working people of China got a masterpiece documentary made about their lives.  For once, they are the noble figures, the centers of the universe.  For 85 minutes, I will gladly be another Chinese face in the eternal torrent of humanity.