Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Last Train Home

Home for the Holidays

A documentary called Dear Zachary has attracted a lot of attention over recent years, and largely with good cause. It's one of the most emotionally powerful non-fiction stories put on-screen in recent times. Surprising, heartbreaking and, ultimately, celebratory: celebrating the compassion and humanity of a couple who experienced a series of shocking tragedies. You really couldn't write the twists & turns the story takes. And yet, when reflecting on the film as a film, I couldn't help but think as a documentary in the traditional sense it's deeply flawed. An overly literal voiceover, a cheesy soundtrack, a complete (and self-proclaimed) lack of film-maker objectivity: basically the film telling you exactly how to feel, and when to feel it. The presence of these usually deplorable traits is basically justified in Dear Zachary given the sheer emotional strength of the story and the intensely personal nature of the story being told. Even the voiceover works as the film is structured like a letter (the title gives that one away). But while Dear Zachary works due to the story's utterly unique elements, I ultimately concluded that I never want to see a documentary like it again. Documentary 101 classes should teach students to not even attempt to emulate it.

I bring this up because for me Last Train Home is effectively the antithesis to Dear Zachary. It's a documentary more films should aspire to be like. It's still emotionally involving, socially aware and deeply human. Yet it does so without cheap indulgences or questionable presentation (well, not immediately obvious ones anyway). It's a beautifully formed slice of non-fiction storytelling, and is easily one of the best documentary films I've ever seen.

This is the story of the Zhang family. Changhua and Suqin (husband and wife respectively) work in the factory city of Guangzhou, thousands of miles away from their children Qin and Yang who live in the rural village of Huilong. They travel home but once a year - for Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, 130 million others also head homewards for the celebration, and the result is a human migration on a completely incomparable scale. The film initially documents their journey over two separate holiday seasons, which is fascinating in itself as a document of the contemporary Chinese working class way of life. But the film takes a compelling twist when teenager Qin quits school to get a job for herself.

As a documentary, Last Train Home is a triumph. It certainly successfully captures an under-recorded social phenomenon: the shots of the human migration are stunning viewing alone, with endless crowds all desperate to get on the titular last train home for the holiday season. For Western viewers, it casts an illuminating eye over contemporary China. These are the people who make your jeans, and their views on Western society are consistently sobering. And yet it also reflects a China in conflict: with Qin's passion for freedom, embrace of consumerism and attempts at emulating popular culture at odds with the strict work ethic of her parents and grandparents. Here we have a country struggling on a basic ideological level, and the viewer is able to garner many social insights from engaging with these images.

Yet it's a brutally honest and heartbreaking story too. Qin's rebellion is clearly crushing her parents, who have effectively chosen a life of hard labour to get her and her brother through school. Suqin proves herself to be a strong-willed woman who will do absolutely anything for her family, no matter how difficult that is. Changhua initially seems reluctant to emote on camera, but in the film's second half he opens up to shocking effect, and his simple failure to keep a straight face at his most emotional junctures is heartbreaking: a quivering lip saying more than a voiceover ever could. Qin is an adolescent on a path of self-destruction, and it's painful viewing seeing her make life-altering wrong decisions just to spite her loving parents. A violent outburst at what should be a celebratory event makes for sobering viewing: a moment of raw emotion in a film that's often quiet and reflective.

It also looks surprisingly beautiful for a documentary. The shots are long, and the landscapes are haunting. Director Lixin Fan is inspired in his sombre, careful pacing: you'd sometime mistake it for a work of fiction given both the stunning visual compositions and dramatic force of the storytelling. There's barely a music cue in sight, and few audiences will feel manipulated.

Yet a documentary by its very nature is a manipulation of reality, with the process of filming and editing automatically causing significant distortions. But the best documentarians - say Errol Morris - expertly navigate this, applying their own commentary and slant without losing all sense of overall objectivity. They brilliantly trick us into thinking this is a wholly accurate representation of reality, and it's a trick unrepeatable by the vast majority of inferior 'agenda' documentarians (Michael Moore, anyone?). Lixin Fan, however, works these potential contradictions expertly, and emerges with one of the most compelling documentaries I've ever had the pleasure to watch. A provocative and beautiful film: socially enlightening yet deeply personal and compassionate. As close to perfect as documentaries get.

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