March 18 2013 12:00 AM

East Lansing Film Society documentary examines Chinese family life — and emotional alienation


We've all had to cope with the trials of holiday traffic, but few of us have ever faced the kinds of challenges encountered by the Chinese family at the center of the stunning documentary "Last Train Home"; they're battling 130 million other travelers who are trying to get somewhere during the pre-Chinese New Year rush.
It's the one time of the year when factory workers in urban centers return to the countryside to reconnect with relatives. As director and cinematographer Lixin Fan demonstrates, it's not always the happiest of occasions.
"Train" focuses on Changhua Zhang and Suqin Chen, a couple who left their rural roots to find jobs in the city. They also had to leave behind a daughter named Qin, now a teenager. Her parents sent Qin to stay with her grandparents so that they could make money to provide her with a better life, but in Qin's eyes, Mom and Dad abandoned her for selfish purposes.
"Train" gives both sides the opportunity to speak, movingly, about the toll the decision has taken on everyone. Suqin, a woman whose eyes always seem to be overflowing with worry, recalls being so upset every time she received news from her parents that it practically paralyzed her.
"I would have to eat before reading a letter from home," she says. "Otherwise, I couldn't eat anything."
Qin, who has helped her grandfather and younger brother work the family farm, isn't interested in hearing such stories. In her mind, she was raised by her grandparents, and her mother and father made only fleeting appearances throughout her childhood.
"Train" covers more than two years in the family saga, and Lixin was fortunate enough to find his subjects just as their lives were on the verge of being completely transformed. As Qin turns 17, she makes a decision that devastates her parents — although they allow her to go through with it — and rearranges their world. Suqin is the kind of mother who only seems capable of expressing love through constant lecturing, scolding and fussiness. Although Changhua is more easy-going, he's nearly as uncomfortable with his parental role as his wife is.
"When we're home, we don't even know what to say to the kids," he admits, and Lixin's camera captures the strained smiles and practiced politeness. Anyone who has ever slogged through a tense holiday will be astonished by how well "Train" captures the anxieties in the air.
Lixin also does a splendid job of immersing the viewer in Suqin and Changhua's environment, in which sleeping babies are seen sprawled out on unused tables in a sewing factory, and train stations are so jammed with pushy, angry would-be passengers that the feeling of claustrophobia is almost overwhelming.
The irony in "Train" comes in the realization that these people who are accustomed to being packed into tight quarters don't know much about truly being close to each other. When Suqin attempts to reach out to Qin, she's instantly rebuffed.
"Every time we talk to you, you get grumpy," Suqin complains, betraying her ignorance about adolescent moods.
"Whatever," Qin snarls. "You're always right anyway." You don't have to be Chinese to relate to that generational tug-of-war.
Qin's long-broiling fury eventually surfaces in a jolting , violent scene that is truly uncomfortable to watch. Unlike American "reality TV," in which most of the participants appear to be playing designated characters (the weepy one, the shrew, the macho man, etc.), what happens in "Train" feels utterly honest and shocking; in the space of a few seconds, all the facades collapse in an explosion of ugly emotions.

'Last Train Home'
Presented by East Lansing Film Society
7 p.m. Tuesday, April 26
Room 109, South Kedzie Hall, Michigan State University (panel discussion follows)
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, and Thursday, April 28
Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing
7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, April 29,  and Saturday, April 30
Room 107, South Kedzie Hall, Michigan State University
$7 adults; $5 seniors; $3 students

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