There are an estimated 130 million nung-gong, or peasant workers, in China, making up what Lixin Fan, in his powerful documentary Last Train Home calls “the world’s largest human migration.” Part of Lixin Fan’s accomplishment is that he was able to capture this phenomenon on film in a country that doesn’t like the dark side of its economic success to be publicized, in China or abroad. And clearly, these migrants have suffered in countless ways, particularly from the rule that ostensibly bans them from bringing their children to their places of supposedly temporary residence—usually factory towns in China’s special economic zones where the country’s booming export industries are situated. (In fact, as Last Train Home shows—in scenes of children sleeping as their parents work on nearby sewing machines—this rule is at least sometimes violated.)
This was not the case for the husband and wife, Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, at the center of Fan’s film, which has been awarded numerous prizes at film festivals around the world, and has even had some limited, small showings in China. The film covers three years in the lives of Zhang and Chen who sixteen years earlier had moved from their impoverished village in Sichuan Province to work in a clothing factory in Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, leaving their two children to be brought up by a grandmother back home. “I know I haven’t been a good mom,” Chen says of this situation, “but I have to do what I have to do.” And what both Zhang and Chen do is spend long hours stitching clothing in a small workshop in Guangzhou, living in a tiny, shabby room in a cement housing block, and sending the lion’s share of their earnings home to Sichuan in the hope that their children will have better lives than theirs. Fan gives no details about their salaries, but evidently whatever they earn is more than they would get if they stayed in the countryside, which is why virtually all the working-age inhabitants of their Sichuanese village have left.
And watch the trailer: