Last Train Home

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

8 November

Chinese engineers divert the Yangtze river, 1997

On this day in 1997, Chinese engineers diverted the Yangtze River, China’s longest, in order to clear the way for construction of the world’s biggest dam.

The Three Gorges Dam was designed to announce the return of China as a player on the world stage – 185 metres high, two kilometres wide, costing $23 billion, able to withstand an earthquake of 7 on the Richter scale, generating the power of 15 nuclear power stations, a tamer of the Yangtze’s catastrophic floods.

The project was not just huge in engineering terms but had also an immensely disruptive effect on the people who lived in its shadow. Between 1.3-1.4 million people were made homeless by it, 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,300 villages disappeared under its waters.
Some insist a similar energy yield could have been had at lower cost by building several smaller dams rather than one big one, and that the dam’s design is therefore politically motivated. Whatever the truth of that assertion, the river was only diverted into a culvert for a short while before being permanently blocked by the dam. Meanwhile, downstream at Gezhouba, a dam had already blocked the river in 1981, with far less fanfare. So in terms of a “first”, the feat fails to qualify. But in most other measurable terms it obviously does.

Last Train Home (2009, dir: Lixin Fan)

The biggest annual movement of people on the planet – the 130 million Chinese migrant workers trying to make it home for Chinese New Year – provides the starting point to a remarkable documentary that’s at least as much excited by the transformative effects of free markets as appalled by them. Focusing on a family of a mother and father who left their children at home 16 years before to work in a factory in the city, the film really kicks off when the parents arrive back at home. Having queued patiently for tickets, got through the remarkable throng at the station, been herded like animals onto crush-trains, they discover at home that their little girl is all grown up, has become quite hot, and is experimenting with new hairstyles, make-up, alcohol, eating out and (it’s implied) sex. Does she want to go on and make something of herself, through study? She does not. Instead, in an exact analogue of British kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s, we have played out a terrible battle between the parents who have skivvied their entire lives, away from their children, leaving an army of grandmas to raise them, to scrape together enough money so that the children don’t have to do the same. And then there’s the daughter, who would rather opt for the fleshpots of the new life that has suddenly opened up since the Chinese glasnost of President Jiang Zemin and the economic boom of his successor Hu Jintao. Last Train Home captures a pivotal moment in a culture, when Confucian calm is giving way to Capitalist permanent revolution, the order of centuries is being supplanted by an “I want it now”. And it does it with a combination of the most excruciatingly intrusive incursions into a family’s intimate moments, coupled with awe-inspiring scenes of massive crowds at the station, swaying obediently but erupting here and there with an angry “not putting up with this much longer” force that, from this distance, looks an awful lot like democracy.

Why Watch?

  • A multi-award-winning documentary
  • Astonishing access
  • Beautifully shot
  • A snapshot of a culture poised on the brink of change

Last Train Home – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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