A heart devoid of love — thoughts on documentary Last Train Home

There are 130 million migrant workers in China. It is the biggest human migration in the world.

This is the opening sentence of the documentary Last Train Home . This movie follows a typical rural household in Sichuan, China for three years and tracks the changing migration and life decisions of household members.

Last Train Home

This is a typical family in rural Sichuan. Both parents were working in Guangdong province, a popular migrant destination in China. Once every year, they took the train back home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their daughter, Qin, and their son, Yang. Qin and Yang lived with their grandmother. Qin appeared to be very mature for her age.  Apart from school work, Qin also had to feed farm animals and tend to crops. She was also skilled in joking with grandmother and creating a warm atmosphere in the family. Since her parents have started working in Guangdong when she was a baby, she barely remembers the time they spent together — there is not much to begin with.

In the first year, the New Year dinner was peaceful. The parents brought Qin a brand new cellphone and Yang some new toys. They urged Qin and Yang to study hard:”You can get out of here and be successful only if you study hard and get good grades. Don’t be like us. We would have earned a lot more if we were more educated.” The children nodded absent-mindedly. Unfortunately, or maybe expectedly, Qin dropped out in the second year. She pursued the same path as her parents — migrating for work. In a manufacture factory in Guangdong, she sewed and packed clothes everyday, while making friends and dressing herself up at the same time. When asked about why she dropped out, she answered “I don’t find school interesting. It’s not useful at all.”

Conflicts burst out in the third year. When Qin was working in another city in Guangdong, she didn’t contact her parents often. Nor did she feel the need to. She dyed her hair, bought new clothes, and tried to make herself look as hot as other city girls. This year at the New Year dinner, she challenged her father, saying he had no power over her because he never cared about her. The family went through a serious fight in which both parties lose. Qin only became more detached from her family.

At the end of the movie, Qin became a bartender in Shenzhen, a metropolitan city in Guangdong. She was dancing disco in a crowd, with the usual absent-mindedness on her face. You can hardly tell her apart from the urban girls with heavy make-up and hot skirts. Qin’s mother was considering going back to home to take care of her son. But this would mean her husband will have to work harder and send more money back home.

I have relatives like Qin and Yang, who suffered and are still suffering from their parents’ migration. I remember a woman working in a charity agency for rural children’s welfare once talked about left behind children: “These children have never been loved. When they grow up, how can we expect them to love others? How can we expect them to love the society?”

I could hardly stop crying as I was watching this movie. If you are Chinese and you are away from home, you will find sentiments throughout the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s great depiction of the snow storms in 2008.  This movie is also a great source for people who want to know more about internal migration within China. Many thanks to Daniel Xu for recommending.

By the way, the title of this post is adapted from A Heart Full of Love in Les Miserables, one of my favorite musicals.

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4 thoughts on “A heart devoid of love — thoughts on documentary Last Train Home

  1. Since you like documentaries, you should check out the Full Frame documentary film festival, which is held in Durham every year, and which just concluded last Sunday: http://www.fullframefest.org/

    I was away at a conference for most of it, but I managed to catch two excellent ones on Sunday: “Running from Crazy,” which recounts Mariel Hemingway’s (Ernest’s granddaughter) fight against suicide, and “The World According to Dick Cheney,” which is pretty self-explanatory.

  2. I am also interested in documentaries about China, especially those directed by “foreigners”, since they may lend us a different perspective to look at ourselves. Following the line of your post on the education in China, I would recommend the BBC documentary named Chinese School, which tracks the life and study of a couple of Chinese students over time in primary school, middle school, vocational school and college. It echoes my own experience a lot. One of the students they followed, a girl from a common family background, later ranked among the top few in Anhui Province in the national college entrance examination. They also recorded part of her life as a freshman majored in economics in Tsinghua University, including the military training. The documentary ended before (if I remember this clearly) she graduated from college. She is now a PhD student in economics in MIT!

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