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POV: Last Train Home

Airs Monday, August 5, 2013 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: The Zhangs are crowded by passengers at Guangzhou Railway Station, heading home for Chinese New Year.

In the opening shots of "Last Train Home," as the camera pans over a paved empty lot, then across a sea of people jostling behind barriers and finally into a surging river of humanity, the film plunges the viewer into an extraordinary phenomenon. China’s booming economy depends on the single largest migrant work force in the world: 240 million people who have left their homes and villages to seek work in urban factories.

The scale of this internal migration, and the social turmoil it brings, is never more visible than in the workers’ annual return to their families and villages for Chinese New Year. So many millions on the move is a testament to the determination of Chinese workers to reconnect with family and tradition. It also exposes a nation under stress from rapid economic development and massive social change.

Among those millions are husband and wife Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin who, 16 years earlier, left their village in Sichuan Province — and left their children in the care of grandparents — to work in the city of Guangzhou, 1,300 miles away. Their contact with their children was reduced largely to telephone calls and the annual New Year’s reunion.

Photo Gallery

View a photo gallery of 10 massive migrations.

Filmmaker Quote

“I used to work at television stations in China and traveled to different parts of the country for my job,” says director Lixin Fan. “The sharp contrast between the lives in cities and the countryside always struck me. Submerged under the glamour of the modern metropolis, the poverty in the vast rural area is overwhelming. I started to focus on the migrant workers, who I believe have contributed the most to China’s prosperity but benefited the least. Aside from many hardships in life, they also have to bear constant separation from their families, who are left behind. I decided to document the lives of this group in a unique position in China (and the world’s) history."

“The annual migrant exodus between cities and countryside during the week of the Chinese New Year provided me a perfect background for the film. The Zhang family’s story speaks for millions. By observing the fate of one family, the smallest and seemingly stable cell in a quickly evolving society, I hope to articulate the complexities of a nation’s ambition to rise and its impact on culture, society and the individual.”

Filmmaker Chat

On Wednesday, September 28, 2011, filmmaker Lixin Fan talked with viewers about "Last Train Home," filming the Zhang family and the lifestyles of Chinese migrant workers. Read the interview

Film Update:

In this follow-up interview, learn what has happened to the Zhang family from the documentary "Last Train Home," and what's next for the film's director, Lixin Fan. (from September 27, 2011)

While the great spaces of China, alternately empty or crowded with anxious tides of people, are always present, "Last Train Home" is most intimately the story of the Zhang family, who are fated to reach for the promise of the new China and discover its wrenching cost.

"Last Train Home" catches the Zhang family at a critical juncture in their struggle to better their lives — or more accurately, the lives of their children. The parents left their village of Huilong when their first child, a daughter, Qin, was only a year old (a son, Yang, would follow). The children were left in capable and caring hands, but the Zhangs’ decision to go was a heartbreaking one made by millions of Chinese parents who felt they had, as Suqin puts it, “no choice.”

Like the Zhangs, many have traded a poor but perhaps psychologically secure life of subsistence farming for long, relentless hours of work in city factories and residence in rudimentary dorm-like structures.

In Guangzhou, the Zhangs sleep in bunk beds and cook their meals on the floor. By day, they make jeans for export to America. “Some jeans are huge!” one worker remarks. “You can fit two people in them.” Factory wages, modest as they are, allow parents to send money home so their children can stay in school.

The Zhangs believe that gaining the education they themselves don’t have is the only way for Qin and Yang to have prosperous futures. It is, in fact, the guiding principle of their lives.

This makes what happens to the Zhang family all the more tragic. The factories where the Zhangs work, the dorms where they live, might exist in any developing nation. But the mass journey home for the New Year is distinctly Chinese in the sheer numbers of people involved; their stubborn attachment to tradition clashing with their ambition for new lives; and their endurance.

New Year also reveals a developing nation whose emerging infrastructure is already overwhelmed. Among the film’s most harrowing and truly nail-biting scenes are those of the Zhangs and countless others struggling amid barely contained chaos to board the trains that they can only hope will get then home in time.

After a long, snaking train journey through China’s harsh and beautiful mountains, then a bus ride on local roads and finally a trek on foot, the Zhangs arrive in Huilong to find the family, for which they have been working so hard, is unraveling.

Mourning the loss of her grandfather and disenchanted with school, 15-year-old Qin is sullen and bitter toward her parents for abandoning her and her younger brother, Yang. The parents’ repeated explanations of how they were forced to leave for the good of their children seem to carry little weight. Their exhortations for Qin stay in school and make the most of it seem only to irritate the teenager.

The first of the two New Year holidays that frame "Last Train Home" brings the Zhangs’ dreams crashing down. In an ironic twist, Qin decides to leave school and, like her parents, go to Guangzhou to find factory work. In Guangzhou, the parents hope a taste of factory life will cure her of her mistake. But Qin, though shocked by the labor and more than a little lonely, is exhilarated by a new sense of freedom and the ability to make her own money.

The three decide to travel together back to Huilong for the New Year, the parents hoping the girl will have decided that school is better than a factory. This second New Year journey in "Last Train Home" turns into an agonizing five-day trial of physical and mental endurance, which, among other terrors, reveals just how great the gap is between mother and daughter.

In Huilong, tensions shockingly and disastrously boil over. Qin has no intention of returning home and going back to school, and she hasn’t forgiven her parents for leaving her. She curses them and has a violent confrontation with her father. In the denouement of this terrible holiday, Qin takes off for the city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, where she finds work in local clubs and begins enjoying another part of the new China — a bustling city filled with shopping malls and young, stylish inhabitants.

In Guangzhou, meanwhile, the Zhangs tearfully resign themselves to losing Qin. They then make another fateful decision — Suqin will return to the village to give Yang the attention that might keep him in school. This will leave Changhua alone in the city as the sole support of the family. The decision to attend to one crack in the family’s unity only opens another. It’s another instance in which the Zhangs, like millions of other Chinese, have “no choice.”

POV is on Facebook, and you can follow @povdocs on Twitter.

Last Train Home - Trailer

Every spring, China's cities are plunged into chaos as 130 million migrant workers journey to their home villages for the New Year in the world's largest human migration. "Last Train Home" takes viewers on a heart-stopping journey with the Zhangs, a couple who left infant children behind for factory jobs 16 years ago, hoping their wages would lift their children to a better life.

A Mother Leaves Her Child for Work in the City

In this clip from 'Last Train Home,' a Chinese mother remembers how it felt to leave her 8-month-old in the care of her family in order to seek a better life in the city.

How Can There Be Any Feelings?

In this clip from 'Last Train Home,' Qin expresses her frustrations with the lives and occupations that her parents have chosen.

We Work Far Away From Home

In this clip from 'Last Train Home,' a Chinese worker travels home for New Year celebrations. He becomes frustrated by the time it takes him to get home, as when he finally reaches his destination, he will see his 3-month-old son for the first time.

The World's Largest Human Migration

Every year, 130 million migrant workers in China make their way home for New Year celebrations. In this dramatic clip from 'Last Train Home,' the Zhangs brave massive crowds of people and long lines in order to travel home and see their children.

Huilong Village on Chinese New Year

In this deleted scene from 'Last Train Home,' New Year celebrations in Huilong bring vibrant costumes, music and parades to the village. The Zhangs enjoy the festivities in the village center as well as back at their modest home.

Interviews at Guangzhou Train Station

In this deleted scene from 'Last Train Home,' migrant workers waiting at China's Guangzhou train station express their frustrations and disappointments with factory life and traveling home for the New Year.

Arguments with Police

In this deleted scene from 'Last Train Home,' the Zhangs as well as other migrant workers become annoyed with police officers at Guangzhou train station. They begin to voice their opinions to the law enforcement, but are unsuccessful.

Last Train Home - Filmmaker Interview

Filmmaker Lixin Fan talks with POV about the reasons he decided to make 'Last Train Home.' He describes the family that is at the center of the film, and the challenges he faced while filming them.