Dir. Lixin Fan
(2010, Not Rated, 90 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

The 2-Train runs along the west side of Manhattan and into the Bronx. I used to ride it home from the city but stopped doing so because it took too damn long. During off-peak hours, sometimes you’d wait twenty minutes for a train to come. Twenty minutes! And then you’d have to wait as long as thirty minutes for a bus to take you the rest of the way. Intolerable! But the journey shown in Last Train Home, which is a matter-of-fact reality for 130 million Chinese migrant workers (that’s almost half the population of the United States), makes me and my similarly impatient New York brethren look like pussies.

It was a coincidence that I watched this film two nights after watching Inside Job, about how Wall Street nearly destroyed the international economy, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine a more perfect companion film for the contrast it provides. The up-close-and-personal hardships of Chinese workers, captured with poetic intimacy by director Lixin Fan, makes the world’s financial conglomerates look like the Frankenstein’s monster of economics. While they use advanced algorithms to maneuver billions of dollars to themselves, millions of migrants on the other side of the globe leave their homes for manufacturing jobs hundreds of miles away just to earn a living for their families, from whom they are separated for most of the year. Concepts like money, work, and obligation mean vastly different things to them than they do to most of us.

The film is exquisite in how it presents one family with great detail and yet captures an entire way of life. We meet Seqin and Changhua, a mother and father who left their home sixteen years ago in order to pay for their children’s education and upbringing. The tragedy of this family is that their daughter, Qin, has grown up understanding their absence but not their sacrifice; out of resentment and in the throes of teenage rebellion, she defies her parents in the most painful way possible: she drops out of school and becomes a migrant worker herself.

In the midst of this heartbreaking family drama, Fan captures the unique struggles of the workforce, giving particular emphasis to the ordeal of traveling home. Perhaps the film’s most captivating sequence shows what happens when inclement weather in another city causes train delays for workers in Guangdong. What appears to be thousands of men and women are tightly packed in and around a train station as day turns into night turns into day again, some waiting for as long as a week among the human flotsam as we catch small but powerful glimpses of individual suffering.

What we can take away from this, I think, is that despite China’s exploding influence on the world economic scene it has yet to develop an infrastructure that will support its population now or into the future, but the commitment of its people to better themselves and their families is herculean. The single most powerful resource at China’s disposal is its people; with a reasonable support system in place, they would rule the world.

Last Train Home streams instantly through Netflix.