Friday, December 23, 2011

An excerpt from "Last Train Home: An Amanuensis"

I may have mentioned a while back that the documentary Last Train Home, by Chinese Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan, was "stunning and heartbreaking" and that "I don't have any other words to describe the viewing experience." I sorta lied about that last part. Below, an excerpt of the viewing experience, in words.



This film is dedicated to the migrant workers and their families


Opening credits. Zeitgeist Films: the red Z flies into place. We’re zoomed in as the letters in “Eye Steel Film” chug across to a backlit scrim the color of the sun. Pitter-patter of rain. In a tidy white font at the bottom left of a black screen are the words “TELEFILM CANADA and the ROGERS GROUP OF FUNDS through the THEATRICAL DOCUMENTARY PROGRAM present.”


FADE IN. Only a uniformed policeman, bundled in black, occupies the public traffic lane. He walks toward the camera, which is perched high and panning left, and quickly we understand that the emptiness on the right of our screen is a foil for the congestion on the left, the serried bodies so tightly packed that we lose the human face, the human arm, the leg, the semblance of movement: we see only a concourse of black-haired beings corralled by a vertical line of officers as barricade. There is a buzz of flesh and blood, a swelling commotion of such bestial strain that the sound of a steady downpour could well be part and parcel of this manmade scene. We see a scattering of umbrellas in the colors of neon, sky blue, army green, sandstone, burgundy, yellow, fuchsia, brown, turquoise, teal, charcoal, light purple, mahogany, orange – and as the camera pans, they proliferate until our screen is filled with these varicolored mushrooms abloom in this soil of humanity.

At ground level, men and women are rushing forward amid an expanding hiss of babble. They flow with the tide, and divested of agency, individuals are freed from obligations of human compassion, sympathy, and courtesy. Uniformed men with hard-billed caps steer traffic best they can, but they are outnumbered. The energy is ramifying from some heart of the matter, the heart which is this: the primal, animalistic instinct and need to be at a place called home. We zoom in on a man being tugged from behind by one who does not want to lose him. A woman emits a screak. A cop says into a megaphone, “Be patient, don’t crowd.”


We are in the bowels of the station, our vision pointed down a concrete gully daubed with the pale glow of cylindrical fluorescent lights. Plaster is peeling off the walls. There are over 130 million migrant workers in China. Travelers appear from the vanishing point hauling roller suitcases, handbags, duffel bags, buckets, makeshift carts – and their weighty footsteps, their burdens, their haste. They go home only once a year, during Chinese New Year. They jog, fast-walk, and now they are rounding the corner. This is the world’s largest human migration. Cut to station platform: a man cranes his neck to make space for an oversized blue bag of woven plastic, possibly containing everything he owns in life, that he hoists onto his shoulder. We see the side of the train, already in motion. The faces inside are a blur. A bright light, belonging to the camera, reflects off the windows, blinking in symphony with the clank of the train’s metal wheels. The clanks grow distant, for we have remained on the platform while the locomotive slips into the night. A whistle sounds, the mistuned French horn, distant and muted. The screen cuts to black, except these words, in English and Chinese:




Clank, clank, clank. Again, that distant and muted whistle…

A film by



Winter 2006. Here is the postcard of a modern Chinese city: a layer of buildings, a mildewed sheet of fog, a few construction cranes. Arrayed in two dimensions: at the bottom are white and dull-pink low-rise buildings; slightly above that, a vanilla six-story building, possibly a factory; rising a little, pink apartments that could be dormitories. We are halfway up the page now, and here everything is hazy, implying distance. There is the mound of a hill. Higher up, hazier still, is the outline of a skyscraper, one side rounded off like a half-licked Popsicle. The top third of the page is simply a swath of gray-red, Teflon-soot, particulates of orange, the hue of cancer. It is the sky. We hear the tittering of a jackhammer, that metal woodpecker. Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

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