The problem with many modern documentaries is that it’s hard to know what to think without more information on their production. Take for example The King of Kong, an exceedingly-entertaining glimpse at the battle for the Donkey Kong high-score whose ultra-simplistic David & Goliath story felt too good to be true. Turns out it may have been.
I also wonder about Last Train Home, Lixin Fan’s beautifully-shot documentary about the Chinese migration from city to country for Chinese New Year. It’s almost too perfect. Too beautiful. Locations look to be lit by Oscar-winning cinematographers. Cameras are always in the right place at the right time — for example, watching the last train retreat from the station and then. . . instantly inside that train. The subjects never seem to mind the cameras are present when they get into deep private arguments, and their naturalness is so natural that you almost wonder if it is authentic. Either the filmmakers are extremely hard-working, talented, and damn lucky. . . or scenes are staged or redone. Lixin Fan produced the documentary Up the Yangzte, another beautiful and poetic documentary which left me with the same questions.
Many reviewers have questioned the film’s authenticity, but I can’t find a single interview where the writer asked Lixin the simple question, “Did you stage anything?” Perhaps no one wants to insult the director who so politely agreed to the interview. But the answer can dramatically alter one’s impression of the film. I’m going to give Last Train Home the benefit of the doubt and hope that everything was captured on the up and up. But part of me remains in limbo.
As a Westerner, am I guilty of a double-standard – the slack-jawed disbelief that an Asian filmmaker can be hardworking, capable, and enormously talented? I see where you’re going with this. But it’s not the filmmaker’s talent I question. My double-standard lies in the first-hand knowledge I possess of how Westerners act on screen and in the giant pool of inexperience I have with on-camera Chinese speaking Mandarin. I can tell in a second when a Western pseudo-doc is staged (as was the case with I’m Still Here), but with a film like Last Train Home, I have to trust the filmmakers.
Partially staged or not, Last Train Home is a powerful portrait of economic changes in China that are happening so quickly much gets left in the dust trail: people, pride, infrastructure, provinces. The film follows a family separated by a huge distance. The parents must work all year in a far away city so the children can afford a good education. They reunite only once a year, when the parents travel home with over 130 million other migrant workers for Chinese New Year.
I get the sense that Lixin Fan made the film with non-Chinese in mind, and if so, he miscalculates our attention span. The film’s 3 year time-line moves so briskly through its 85 minutes that we have no time to pause and reflect. Yet still, the points leak through. What hit home for me most is the vast economic disparity between China and the United States. In one scene, a factory worker holds up a pair of plus-size jeans bound for export to the U.S. and laughs, “No one has a waistline of 40 inches in this country.” A train passenger remarks that an American may only save a tenth of his paycheck where a Chinese worker will save nine-tenths (I am paraphrasing from the best of my memory). The film holds the mirror up to Westerners and shows us to be victims of prosperity — we’ve lived in excess for so long that we take it for normalcy. We buy expensive takeout, eat too much of it, and spend too much money on too many trivialities. How much suffering could be averted if we used the money we spend on Starbucks Lattes and $15 movie tickets for vaccinations and medicine in third world countries? (For a strong dose of guilt, read The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer.)
Are we prepared for the hard times coming? China seems to be just deep enough in the hole to dig too deep or climb out. The factory workers endure little pay, poor working conditions, and 14 hour work days. They need a labor revolution. . . and soon. But what will higher prosperity do for the largest population center in the world? Can the world support Western extravagance on a global scale? I think not. But neither should it support a few rich countries living in excess while the majority lives below the poverty line. Last Train Home stirred many questions inside me in a way that few films do; and for that, I give it a strong recommendation. Staged or not.
Tony Youngblood is the current Foursquare Mayor of the Belcourt Theatre, a film and music snob, and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.