Director Lixin Fan grew up in China in the midst of rapid modernization. As a journalist, he traveled the country, experiencing firsthand the inequality caused by economic expansion as parents of young children scurried to cities to make a living, decimating families. Seeing this inspired him to become a documentary filmmaker focusing his cinema verité-style camera on social issues.
Lixin's debut documentary, Last Train Home, has won multiple awards, including an investigative prize from the San Francisco International Film Festival and best documentary awards from IDFA, Riverrun Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
In 2006, Lixin worked as associate producer/soundman on the acclaimed feature documentary Up the Yangtze, a film about the world’s largest hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam. The film played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, won the Genie award as Canada’s top documentary feature, and was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award.
In 2003, Lixin edited the Peabody and Grierson award-winning documentary To Live Is Better than to Die. Recognized as one of the most shocking documentaries on China’s AIDS epidemic, the film was featured in the Sundance Film Festival and broadcasted on HBO, BBC, CBC, and PBS.
The following director's statement and Q&A are reprinted courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
I used to work at TV stations in China. During those days I traveled to different parts of the county. The sharp contrast between the lives in cities and countryside always struck me. Submerged under the glamour of the modern metropolis, the poverty in the vast rural area is overwhelming. As I traveled, I started to focus on the migrant workers, whom I believe have contributed the most to China’s prosperity but benefited the least. Aside from many hardships in life, they also have to bear constant separation from their families who are left behind. I decided to document the lives of this group in a unique position in China (and the world’s) history.
The annual migrant exodus between cities and countryside during the week of the Chinese New Year provided me a perfect background for the film to closely examine the plight of the workers. The migrant Zhang’s family story speaks for millions. Through their story, the film scrutinizes social inequality raised in a nation’s industrial endeavor, and how the process is affected by globalization on both a social and humanistic level. By observing the fate of one family, the smallest and seem[ing]ly stable cell in a fast evolving society, I hope to articulate the complication between a nation’s ambition to raise and it impact on culture, society and individual.
On a cultural level, Confucian value of filial piety (respect for elders and ancestors) has long played a big role in Chinese lives. Being away from one’s family was never encouraged, but a changing society shifted the value toward a pragmatic approach of bettering one’s material life. Parents work away from home; they send all savings to the grandparents and kids. Sadly, providing material comfort alone does not translate into filial affection. Without parental presence and emotional support for the left-behind children, they do not connect or sympathize with their parents, as the gap between them can widen into an irreparable split.
On a national level, China is dashing to become a richer country, should tradition, morality, and humanity be drowned in a world of tireless rumbling factories is the question we should ask. For a government, to keep the fine balance between the economic development and the welfare of all people is the ultimate challenge in a time of change. In Taoism, we know that in nature, opposites must coexist harmoniously; a balance of opposites creates the best situation for harmony and calm. This is what we hope for the future.
Q&A with Last Train Home
Director Lixin Fan
Why did you pick the plight of migrant workers in China as the subject of your first film? Has this issue touched your own life in some way?
I was born to an average family. My father was a college professor and my mother was an accountant. I went to university in my hometown, so I never actually had a personal experience of migrating. Back in the days at CCTV when I traveled, I was constantly consternated and often grieved by the shocking poverty and misery across the country’s vast rural land, submerged under the glamour of the modern metropolis. I started to realize that the country’s millions of migrants, the very contributors to today’s prosperity, were denied many basic social necessities. They have to bear this great grief of constant separation from their loved ones. I decided I had to make a film to document this unique group against the backdrop of a changing country.
How did you find your subjects? Was it hard to convince the family to be on camera?
In the city of Guangzhou I visited over 30 factories. They make everything there: toys, garments, electronics, you name it. I just strolled around these factory neighborhoods and talked to the workers I met. They are generally nice but also cautious about speaking to strangers. In an ever-shifting population of migrants, mutual trust takes time to gain. I eventually met the Zhang couple. In the beginning, they were cautious about discussing their family lives, but I revisited them many times in the following weeks and we became friends. Eventually they agreed to the shooting. I felt very lucky to know them and was most grateful for their kindness and openness with me and the crew. They were so generous to let us enter every part of their lives for years. Our friendship grew as time went by. The crew call the man “brother Zhang” and his wife “sister Chen”. We were like one big family, trudging through factory life.
Were you ever tempted to put down the camera and help the Zhangs resolve the difficult issues that were happening right in front of your eyes?
I guess this is the ultimate question that every documentary filmmaker faces at some point. The choice is always difficult. Like I said, one reason I wanted to make this film was to raise awareness and better the lives of Chinese peasants. There will be moments when an individual’s well-being is challenged in the process. For example, when the father hit the girl, should I have put down the camera or should I have captured this emotional moment to give the film a stronger narrative to reach a larger audience and eventually create changes? In such a conflict of ethics versus professionalism, everyone is challenged to make a sensible decision. I would choose the greater good but, very importantly, not at the cost of harm. The moment the father hit the daughter, I was in another room, my cameraman was shooting. I heard the shouting and came to the scene, and went into the frame to calm everyone down. The Chinese believe the world we live in is not a world of black and white. As the Tao’s yin and yang argument explains: every action creates a counter action as a natural, unavoidable movement. Also, as the Taoijitu sign shows, there is black in white, and there is also white in black.
Why do you think China has this massive migrant community?
The migration of the peasant work force started in the early 80’s when the country first opened its economy. The influx of foreign investment created numerous factory towns in the southern coastal regions. A soaring demand for labor lured millions out of their farmland to work in factories. Also with the loosening of the country’s long-standing household registration system, people started to move around to find opportunities to better their lives. A low wage and lack of rights prevents them from bringing their families from the villages to the cities, even after decades of work.
What region have most workers gone to, and from where have they come?
The general trend of migration is from the undeveloped western part of the country toward the more developed eastern and southern costal areas. People from densely populated provinces such as Henan, Sichuan, Hubei and Hunan tend to leave their homes to find work in big cites across the country.
Do you think the transportation system in China can be improved, and how?
Improving the country’s overall transportation system is on Beijing’s priority list. That being said, the Spring Festival problem is more related to social policies than the transportation system. The fact is, no matter how many roads you build, it’s just impossible to transport such a large amount of passengers all at once in one direction. A more rational solution is the implementation of labor law, granting the migrant workers the social care and support they deserve, allowing their families to move to the cities. China has set a goal to urbanize half of its 1.3 billion population by 2020, and 70 percent by 2050.
What do you think of cross-generation care (i.e. grandparents caring for grand kids)? How does this trend impact the new generation?
Grandparents tend to spoil little children because nowadays most families have only one child. Because these kids are less disciplined on their grandparents’ watch, they became what we call “little emperors”. It’s a good and bad thing. The new generation definitely have more freedom to think and do what they want, which may translate into a positive force to change the country. On the other hand, these spoiled little emperors and empresses often bear discouraging qualities like a lack of strong will, being inconsiderate to others, and the like.
How has the phenomenon of migrant workers affected traditional Chinese family values?
It’s true that the Confucian virtue of filial piety has long played a big role in Chinese lives. Being away from one’s family was never encouraged by traditional values. Now the changing society has shifted toward a more pragmatic judgment and the bettering of one’s material life. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinese are losing their traditional values completely. For example, in the film, the parents worked away from home but they sent all their savings to their parents and kids. I think that although the way of life has transformed along with economic changes, deeper values still remain.
Who has influenced your artistic style?
I admire Chinese film director Jia Zhangke and his work. His calm, meticulous, sensitive, and abstract way of looking at changing China from a humanist point of view in a greater historical context gave me a lot of inspiration. He uses landscape and environment to define the subject matter. I like the way he explores the relationships between plain individuals against the greater backdrop of contemporary Chinese society. I also learned a lot from my good friend, Yung Chang, the director of Up The Yangtze.
In making this film, what have you learned which is most precious?
One thing I have learned is that a candid relationship between the filmmaker and the subject is essential to making a strong and truthful representation of life. During the production, the crew and the subjects talked about everything together. I sensed as a filmmaker that you can’t only think of what you can get from your subject, you have to share your own ideas and emotions. Many times, I got great footage when I felt I was with my subjects in their emotional world. I live the moment with my subjects, my heart feels their pain, their love, their sorrow and courage. But at the same time, my mind still keeps my rational thinking.