Zhang Changhua (father)
Born in a remote rural village in Sichuan province, Changhua has been working in Guangzhou factories with his wife for 17 years. He has allowed the director and his crew complete and intimate access to the harsh reality of the couple’s urban life. Migrant workers like the Zhangs are second-class citizens in China. Despised by the city’s residents, they travel far to take on the growing economy’s dirtiest and most difficult jobs for very low pay. China’s household registration system excludes them from public healthcare and social welfare; their kids cannot attend public schools in the cities. They live in poor conditions and face daily discrimination.
Driven by a need to return and see his children, Changhua pays triple the usual price for a coveted train ticket that will take him on a multi-day ordeal across China, a year’s savings and belongings in tow. As poor as the Zhangs are, they attempt to indulge their children with toys and money as a way to make up for the years of separation. But Changhua will find it very hard to overcome or accept the rebellious attitude of a teenage daughter he no longer recognizes.
Zhang Qin (daughter)
Qin is the eldest of the Zhangs’ two children. 17 years old at the time of filming, she has been raised by her grandmother in the family’s ancestral village. Under China’s laws, she and her brother have been unable to accompany their parents, lacking the urban residency status that would entitle them to attend public school in the city. Qin can only see her parents once a year during the New Year. Sullen and resentful, she is convinced that her parents care more about making money than they do about her. She cannot forgive them.
Qin’s village life is simple and revolves around subsistence farming and the local school. Lured by the promise of money and an exciting city life, she will quit school against her parents’ wishes, traveling to Guangzhou to join the throngs of migrant workers in the factories. Here she begins working 14-hour days for a 5$ wage, living in a 12-person dorm. Qin is typical of rural teenage dropouts in China, where at least one third of the 120 million migrant workers are woman aged 17 to 25. Naively, she comes to believe making money is more important than going to school in today’s society, though the new Chinese dream excludes migrant workers who have little chance of escaping their status. At the film’s end, Qin’s future path is uncertain.
Chen Suqin (mother)
Early in the film, with great difficulty, Chen recounts how she left her newly-born daughter behind to accompany her husband and seek work in the city years ago. She has not seen her children in 3 years. Wracked by guilt, she admits to the director, “I know I haven’t been a good mom, but I have to do what I have to do.” Last Train Home documents her desperate desire to connect with her estranged daughter and steer her towards a better future outside the cycle of family separation and poverty. In the film’s final scenes, she will leave her husband to labour alone without her, returning to village life in the hopes of preventing their son from following in his sister’s footsteps.
The Zhang family represents countless other Chinese families whose relationships and values have been shattered by frantic economic growth in the era of globalization.