Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: ‘Last Train Home’ and Finding Ways to Empathize with the Zhang Family

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Still from Last Train Home, which has its U.S. broadcast premiere Tuesday, September 30, 2011 on POV.

“Finish your plate. There are people starving in China.”

That’s something I heard as a child. You might have heard it too. What did it bring to mind? Perhaps a child with a small bowl of rice — an abstraction in the mind of a Western child. What did I really know about hunger or the value of food?

For much of my youth, China was the standard for deprivation — a nation of people with a background of hardship. I think of the countless thousands entombed into the foundation of the Great Wall during its construction.

Of course, there’s a competing narrative that’s captured our perception of China more recently — that of an emerging superpower, owner of our debt and the inevitable one-to-beat for the next few decades. Straddling both perceptions is Last Train Home, Lixin Fan’s indelible film about a Chinese migrant family’s struggle to survive. Fan’s greatest feat, in addition to the film being exquisitely shot and fluidly told, is that it actually breaks beyond the abstractions and perceptions about China, and brings us the cold, hard reality of one family, the Zhangs.

It’s ostensibly about the holiday period when Chinese migrant workers try to return home. Yes, it shows the utterly desperate travel conditions the Zhangs endure — hours of standing in the rain, mob stampedes, cramped quarters, and prices they can barely afford — but it’s really a 360-degree portrait. It puts the complaints we American travelers might have about getting stuck at JFK to shame.

And it puts so much else into perspective: working late nights, strained relations between family members, getting sick on the job, hoping for a better life for our children. Our troubles don’t hold a candle to what the Zhangs have to endure. But, I have to admit, despite the film’s miraculous achievements (and I’m not exaggerating — Last Train Home is one of my ten favorite documentaries of the past five years), I am not sure we Westerners can really appreciate the plight of the Zhang family. As much as it puts a face to that adage about Chinese hardship that we heard as children, I’m not sure we can really know how it feels.

This veers toward a philosophical question: Is empathy for another human being possible? I think so. But when the life experience is so different, and the particular cultural, historical and social context is so foreign, then it is very, very difficult. As much as this film allows us to witness the plight of the Zhangs, I don’t think I can really get inside their heads.

I cannot praise Lixin Fan’s accomplishments more than I already have (it’s also been universally lauded by critics, audiences and award shows), but I also cannot help feeling a little cynical. This is not a heartwarming tale. And as much as it brings the world closer, it also reminds me how far apart we are.

Did you feel the same way about Last Train Home? You can watch the film on POV, then share your thoughts here.

Get more documentary film news and features on POV’s blog, Twitter @povdocs or Facebook.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • shattered heart

    This documentary, Last Train Home, broke my heart and catapulted me into action. I will be joining the Wall Street protesters this coming week-end. And yes, I am 84 years of age..

  • Anonymous

    In this culture of ours I would think we have true empathy for about a minute and a half and then we forget about others.  

    We learn so much from this film though, and see so much of the countryside we would never see without the film.  We learn the peasant class of Pearl Buck books remains alive and well yet excepting it has moved into the factories thousands of miles from home.  And when we are just about ready to forget the plight of the Mexican illegal migrant suffering much the same problems in a different way, this film reminds us that our world remains completely lopsided yet.  

  • Primadonna

    What a heavy burden on the shoulders of such a small, unhappy man who has to support his family in such demeaning labor, so far from home, without any emotional support himself.  His face haunts me.  What place is there in such lives for fun, laughter and lightness of spirit.
    I think this film shows the other side of China that we don’t see or hear much about and certainly makes me look at “Made in China” in a different way.  Beautifully done and unforgettable but one feels such a sense of hopelessness in seeing such masses of people who seem to have little chance for a good life for themselves or for their children.  But, we could  be doing more for those within our borders who live lives of desperation and despair.

    • Anonymous

      This goes back to all the sweatshops we have bought from as if we don’t know the inexpensive clothing we get from various outlets in our own country aren’t made by people overseas who are being worked to death.  Today we see the plight of a Chinese family, tomorrow it will be Central America or India.  So that is as far as our empathy goes.  I am not of Chinese heritage but find it difficult to blame the country of China for employing migrant workers when we do the same thing in America.  

      I believe the beauty of this marvelous documentary is that we get to see one family from the inside.  However, this family has something many migrants in America do not have, the ability to educate their children to do better right there in  China if only the children continue in school.  That is the ticket out of the sweatshop for the descendants of this family.  We cannot say the same necessarily for a migrant worker in central Florida or the fields of California, all illegal from Mexico.  And, we in the U.S cannot afford to make our migrants legal either.  

      It is obvious that the parents in the film are well aware of the sacrifice they are making.  IMHO their sadness stems from the fact that their hopes were dashed by the daughter.  She totally failed to recognize anything her parents were going through.  Her life was about immediate gratification.  She acted with less thought than my upper middle class granddaughter who has everything, but who this week completed bunches of college applications in hopes of ensuring her future by being admitted to a 6 year pharmacy program at a good university.   My granddaughter is the great-great granddaughter of immigrants who sacrificed their lives, much as the  Zhang family has theirs.  However, the lessons of the past has not been lost even now for my granddaughter.  

      16 years ago when both Zhang parents went off to sacrifice themselves they knew what they were doing.  I am very sad concerning the daughter and her extreme selfishness.