Self and Other II

film 4 of 4

Last Train Home

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

Niche stories and niche markets are okay, or more than okay, but they can become so specialized/particular as to become completely hermetic, indulgent, irrelevant. And then there’s this situation, where the niche or subculture in question is 130 million (!) Chinese who are permanently, life-long strung out by a can’t-go-on/I’ll-go-on migrant worker existence. Your heart always goes out in situations like this, and you feel to reprove yourself for being so oblivious. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, since even the most engaged can’t get to more than a fraction of what’s important. But 130 million people! This is necessary stuff.

A methodical observational doc method allows the filmmakers to get the details and the pacing of these lives right. Kids are the same all over the world. Like these kids. And in addition to those common characteristics, they also demonstrate differences that are specific to their individual circumstances. Recent cultural conversations make it hard not to miss the tiger-like way that this mother relentlessly doesn’t relent. What’s different here is that this tiger Mom is not an upscale Asian-American, but rather a poor peasant who doesn’t seem to gage herself, or anyone else, very well. Then again, relentlessness is how poor peasants always survive, isn’t it? In contrast we have this handsome father, seemingly beaten down to silent, despairing assent. The poor, noble soul! He’s supporting his family and fulfilling his obligations, and failing miserably as he does so. And as to that failure, he has no choice, and no alternative! It’s all quite wrenching, in it’s deadpan, patient-unto-death way.

There are subtle insights here that have to do with industry and international commerce and all. North American markets give these folks their jobs. North American lifestyles, or the images that allegedly represent them, give them their motivation, and distraction, and dire, irresistible temptation. Or at least that seems to be true of the younger generation. This is the rub. Either you’re like the grandma and the parents, impossibly stuck in between Chinese tradition and Chinese neo-prosperity, or you’re like the kids, fleeing from the former toward the Moloch of Western materialism (ie. that one girl and the one job she gets, surrounded by all those particular kinds of people), if not out and out hedonism.

When we’re trying to be responsible toward poverty at the same time that we’re trying not to objectify the poor, we might be inclined to identify difficulties at the same time that we appreciate decencies. Except that there seem to be mighty few decencies here. The work might not be so bad, in its mind-numbing way. But the living quarters! The separations! And this endless, perilous travel!

Last Train Home really works, but there are are a couple of considerable problems. The method is observational, but some of it sure looks/feels set up. The older daughter looks pensively out the train window. The image comes at the perfect time, and is very meaningful, very affecting. Might they perhaps have contrived it? Do they ever do anything else? These are real social actors of course, and there’s no doubt that the film is full of profound authenticities. But it’s also obviously, substantially faked.

The observational surface only cracks that one time, during an appalling family brawl that takes place back in the country. It’s an amazing sequence. Look how typically, universally, it all starts with a practical nothing before escalating to a near apocalypse. But trifles are never just trifling, are they? The result is a practical conflagration, where everyone and no one is at fault. So dramatic, so authentic, so distressing and moving. And of course, quiet naturally and quite immorally, the crew just keeps rolling. The most stunning moment, of course, is when the battered, shattered young woman actually and for the first time confronts them. “Is this enough for you?” It’s really more powerful than that seminal moment in Rear Window, when Raymond Burr realizes what is happening, and looks right down Jimmy Stewart’s camera lens. In this case, of course, the cameraman is actually safe. So are we. But we are even more complicit, and more accused.

That, obviously, is the film’s other huge problem, so much bigger than whether people are playing to the camera. These subjects are vulnerable, in all sorts of ways. Their lives are hard, and the making and distribution of this movie has made their lives harder. We’re the better for it, but that’s a small consolation for them.