Like many other members of the Atlantic staff, I have for the past few days been doing nonstop interviewer / moderator / emcee duty at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
This evening I had the honor of interviewing the young Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan after a screening of his documentary film Last Train Home. The movie has been out for a few years, and it has received its share of prizes and acclaim. But even though I had heard all about it and read many admiring reviews, I had not actually seen it until tonight. I urge you not to repeat my mistake of postponing a viewing.
In one sense, I already "knew" everything the film was about. It covers trends, scenes, places, and problems I had witnessed myself, often at exactly the same time the filming was going on, and that I had tried to describe in print. It's about the situation of the migrant workers who staff China's vast export industry, as they reflect on the families they have left back in their villages and place all their hopes on their once-a-year chance to go home, for Chinese New Year. But the power of film, and the patient artistry of Lixin Fan in getting one Chinese family to share the most intimate features of its life over a period of several years, surpasses what mere words can do. I could tell you that the panorama in front of the Guangzhou railroad station, when hundreds of thousands of people compete for a limited number of seats on outbound trains, is one of patience, panic, desperation, and human passion on a scale simply never seen in North America. If you watch the crowding at Guangzhou station in the film, you will have an entirely different idea of it, which you will never forget.
The great novels of the European and American industrial revolution live on as the most powerful ways of envisioning the pressures on individuals, families, institutions, and values as technology and commerce transformed societies. In their different ways these are the accounts that Dickens, Zola, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser or John Steinbeck provided for us. Last Train Home is true-life documentary, rather than fiction, but I think it stands comparison to these other works. I guarantee that if you see it you will from that time forward read all news about Chinese "growth," and also about rich-poor splits and tensions within China, with a different eye. To put it another way, the next time someone asks me, "So what did you learn in China?" I'll say, take a look at this film. It's not all of China -- nothing is -- but it is an important and under-reported part.
After the screening, an audience member asked Lixin Fan, shown at left, whether he was as hopeless about China as the circumstances in his film implied. He said, "It's my country," and went on to describe his mixture of hope and fear. With his film he has done a service to his country and the world. Please find a way to see it.
UPDATE A reader writes:
You don't have to look far for a way to see it. It's streamable, free, from Netflix for anybody who has an account. Lookin' at it right now.