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UPDATED: February 20, 2012 NO. 8 FEBRUARY 23, 2012
A Migrant's Tale
Documentary peeks into the lives and struggles of China's migrant workers
By Yu Yan

HOMEWARD BOUND: A scene from Last Train Home (FILE)

For most of the 130 million Chinese migrants who make the annual pilgrimage from the country's urban centers to their rural hometowns or interior cities for China's Spring Festival holiday, the stories of their arduous journey home go untold. A 2009 documentary titled Last Train Home is shedding light on the travels of the common Chinese man and woman.

Fan Lixin, director of Last Train Home (FILE)

The 90-minute documentary film follows Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin's painful journey home during China's Spring Festival travel rush. Filmed over the course of three years between 2006 and 2009, director Fan Lixin captures the essence of life as a migrant. Low pay, a heavy workload and shabby living conditions constitute their life in cities.

But more than highlighting the family's struggles, it presents the real living conditions of Chinese migrant workers, the men and women who have contributed to China's prosperity. It also offers a glimpse at this social group's daily struggles to make a living and maintain strong family bonds.

Well recognized

Over the past two years, the film has won wide recognition, winning more than 30 international awards including the Joris Ivens Award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the Directors Guild of America Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.

The film was released in China during the last Spring Festival rush from January 8 to February 16, with showings in seven cities across China. Raking in more than $400,000 in ticket sales abroad and a meager $1,588 in China, the film's popularity is based largely on its story, one that many Chinese share with the main characters, said the movie director Fan, who was born in central China's Hubei Province and moved to Canada in 2006.

Lying at the lowest social rank, migrant workers are China's most vulnerable social group, said Fan. Hailing from undeveloped areas, they had to travel long distances to find work and earn money, leaving their children at home in the elderly, albeit capable, hands of grandparents.

In cities, the migrants often feel ostracized and lost among the mobs of city dwellers. Long ticket queues and increased foot traffic at train stations in the run-up to the Spring Festival make family reunions all the more special, and sometimes necessary to keep one's sanity.

Story of strife

In making the film, Fan accompanied Zhang and his wife Chen as they made the trip from Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, to southwest Sichuan Province, a distance of 2,086 km.

Twenty years ago, the couple left their hometown for Guangzhou, working for a clothing factory. Working conditions were tough, with noisy machines and mountains of clothes. After their shifts ended late at night, the husband-wife duo returned to their tiny apartment: a dark and dismal dwelling with worn furniture and a water-stained ceiling. Like so many other migrants, Zhang and his wife weren't saving for themselves, all earnings were set aside so their daughter Zhang Qin and son Zhang Yang could go to college and live a better life without the same burdens their parents went through.

Their daughter, a rebellious 15-year-old, refused to live as her parents wished. She hated school and the desolate village, because all young or middle-aged people went to cities as migrant workers. Only children and old people stayed in the village.

To Zhang Qin, her parents were only names and not faces she saw every day. They gave her money and told her to study hard, but they were never there to take care of her or her brother. Despite her parents' sacrifice, Zhang Qin quit school and followed her parents' footsteps to Guangdong.

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