Obviously, I'm late to town on The DocYard Presents series that ran at the Brattle Theatre this summer; Last Train Home was the last entry in this biweekly* eight-film series. If it's representative, I missed out, but Mondays have been rough for me schedule-wise - they seem to be the day when I'm most likely to stay late after work.
This was an interesting screening in part because the Q&A with the director afterward was done via videoconference, as the film has actually been making a lot of rounds and getting attention, so filmmaker Lixin Fan is much in demand, making a side trip to Boston out of the question. It went as well as these sessions usually go, although I find myself not hugely impressed with Skype and related technologies. I half suspect that in a couple of years, some teenager is going to stumble upon just how amazingly clear a pure analog landline-to-landline call sounds compared to computer/cellular equivalents and start a fad.
I'll be interested on seeing what the schedule looks like for the series's projected return in early 2011. In the meantime, any of my friends/family/random readers in Maine might be intereste din checking out the Camden International Film Festival, which is run by some of the same people and features a fairly impressive line-up of docs (its specialty). In the meantime, the Brattle and Chlotrudis are starting another biweekly Monday series on the 27th, "Cine-Cache", which appears to be spotlighting some of the independent/foreign/documentary films as the Eye-Opener series of previous years, although now at a more friendly time.
* Yes, I checked this to make sure I was using biweekly properly instead of "semiweekly". It is my grammar thing that drives me nuts, and the fact that it can apparently mean two things that are exactly opposites is maddening.
Last Train Home
* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The DocYard Presents)
Last Train Home starts by presenting the audience with large numbers - the 130 million Chinese workers who return home for the New Year's holiday annually (the world's largest human migration), and the 2100 kilometers that separate the Zhang family during the rest of the year. Once it has hit the audience with those, it narrows the focus considerably - to how this pattern affects that one family, who prove an interesting and sometimes disquieting sample of the population at large.
Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin work in a factory located in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, mostly sewing jeans for export to the west. They've been doing this for a decade and a half, ever since their daughter Zhang Qin was about a year old, working long hours to support Qin and her brother Yang, who live back in Sichuan Province, tending the farm with their elderly grandmother. The annual trip home means everything to them, despite the expensive and hard-to-obtain tickets for a trek that is a logistical nightmare for time that is all too short. And when you only get to see your children for a few days once a year, those days are seldom all you hope they will be.
Last Train Home opens in 2006 and follows the Zhangs through the better part of three years, covering two migrations and, some economic ups and downs, the Beijing Olympics, and some very contentious family reunions. It is, initially, a bit of a surprise to see the movie extend so far along that axis as opposed to another - the images presented to the audience emphasize breadth as opposed to duration: When we're introduced to the Zhangs at their workplace, we don't initially realize that the film is about them - we see many workers, and they are not identified on-screen individually (I don't believe father Changhua's name is ever spoken, at least not with subtitles, although he does call his wife "Su" at one point). Similarly, though we are given some information about how far the Zhangs are from home, Fan doesn't go out of his way to make us feel the length of the trip, at least on the first iteration.
Full review at EFC.