Floating Population in Chinese Independent Cinema: Last Train Home and 24 City

Addressing the problem of China’s floating population, two documentaries: Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (2009) and Jia Zhangke’s 24 City (2009), which were made independently from the state-controlled production system, are important records of individual struggles in the process of contemporary Chinese economic reform. The characters in the two films belong to different historical periods of “floating population” in China, where the people embody repressed individuality driven by a geographic mobility that does not guarantee a good life despite the state promise of better opportunities and social harmony. Different stories and techniques are used in the two films: Last Train Home is an observational documentary tracing the train journeys of one family; 24 City is a semi-fictionalized documentary constituting real and staged interviews regarding the breakdown of the military enterprise 420 Factory. Both films are examples of how independent cinema goes beyond the limitation of mainstream representations to shed light on the underrepresented history of marginal Chinese working class.

Both Last Train Home and 24 City belong to the independent film genre in China, which since the late 20th century has taken the form of documentaries that portray individuals and groups that are traditionally underrepresented. Independent films are similar to underground films due to their subversive nature of presenting a reality that deviates from the mainstream political ideology. The camera empowers those who embody minority identities and living statuses and creates an alternative archive of personal experiences overlooked by society (Wang, 2014). The characters in both films have internalized collective social beliefs and made individual sacrifice caused by mass migration.


Last Train Home records the destiny of one migrant family in 2008 and 2009, who among the mass wave of floating population, rely on the train to journey home at the busiest travel season around Lunar New Year. It documents the Zhang family, residents in rural Sichuan, Southwestern China. The parents make a living as garment workers in Guangdong, Southeastern China, and, given the amount of time and distance from home, are only able to reunite once a year with their daughter and son, who remain at home with their grandmother. The rail system has been manipulated by scalpers, diminishing the chance for the migrant workers to go home. The film includes panorama scenes of them lingering at the square in front the ticket office. Having been unable to return home for three years, the Zhang couple wait for five days to get train tickets at a rip-off price in 2008, in which year the railway system accommodated some of the 140 million migrant workers working outside home provinces (Li et al. 2012: 174), a lens into the collective plight of current migrant working class population.

The storyline of this typical migrant family to and from home reflects the macroeconomic condition that denies the migrant working class fair access to social services despite their contribution to the national economic growth. Under the rigid “Household Residential Registration” (Hukou) system, rural dwellers usually resort to working for labor-intensive manufacturing sectors in urban areas for better incomes than what they expect from a declining agricultural livelihood, yet at the same time they face extreme difficulty obtaining a permanent urban Hukou to guarantee an equal share of opportunities (Li et al, 2012: 175). Because proper education and health care in the cities are unaffordable or unavailable to children with their rural Hukou, migrant workers’ children, such as the Zhang siblings, are left behind in the countryside, where only low-quality education is available.

The physical distance between the parents and the children thus creates an emotional gap between them. Short and awkward conversations on the phone are visually presented in the documentary, showing the parents’ lack of awareness and false expectation of the children’s school life. The 16-year-old daughter decides to give up high school, often not a way out for teenage girls in the countryside, and follow her parents to start making a living as a migrant worker. Although the daughter is able to experience shared moments of plight as her parents do on their journey and at work, misunderstandings and tension are unavoidably present.

One scene capturing the father-daughter fight at home is worth mentioning, where for the first time the daughter addresses the camera directly, challenging Fan’s observational mode of documentation with minimal intervention. Rural traditional values are still kept among the older generation, such as the grandmother and parents, who keep reminding the children to study hard so the family can benefit from them, something that often alienates and irritates the adolescent daughter. Deprived of alternative means to earn a better living, exacerbated by the parents’ lack of understanding and false expectation of the children’s performance, the daughter’s curse word initiates a fight between her and her father. Enraged and humiliated, the daughter yells at the camera, “Don’t you want to see the ‘real’ me? This is the real me!” This unexpected fight is included in the final production, and serves as a vivid example of this young migrant worker’s struggle. She is, however, hopeful about her second journey alone to work as a waitress at a bar. According to her, happiness equals freedom, which is hard-won and with an unpredictable future. The documentary exposes the daily struggles of this migrant working class family, which would normally go unnoticed among the more privileged groups of the society.

The poetic rendering of the cinematic aesthetics in Last Train Home further exposes the rural-urban disparity. The peaceful rural scenes where the siblings participate in agricultural labor with their grandmother contrasts with the rustling hubbub at train stations and factory areas. The long-distance static shots of trains moving along the tracks against the vast landscape in different seasons capture the hardship of the migrant journeys. Due to the new market economy reform which prioritizes the development of the Eastern urban region, the Zhang family are unable to leap across the disjuncture to enjoy the benefits reserved unevenly for their educated counterparts in the cities. This rural working class family, is constantly under the influence of mainstream ideology that today’s bitterness is worthwhile for the nation’s future prosperity and collective benefits. Last Train Home offers one microcosm of the numerous migrant population who internalize the arduous journey and self-sacrifice with the belief that working far away from home will lead to a better life.

Similarly in 24 City, named after the independent corporation taking over land of the former 420 Factory, Jia collects the oral history of a community who no longer benefit from the state facility and whose sufferings are disguised by the politically correct version of truth featuring a grand Chinese Dream, which requires mobilizing vast material and human resources across the nation. In Jia’s interviews, no one blames the Factory or the state system for their plight. The older generation tends to defend the glory of the secret state business  (Jia, 2009, p. 5), and others keep referring to the necessary adaptation to the change in economic situationn and the inevitability of their involvement in the economic reform that is unfavorable to their livelihood.

Jia’s documentary mode in 24 City is mainly reflexive and participatory, through which he combines real interviews of workers and their offsprings’ oral history, as well as stage-directed performance of actors recounting the past. 24 City is the name of the private corporation that replaced the state-owned secret military 420 Factory moved to the city of Chengdu during war times in the 1950s. In the book A Collective Memory of Chinese Working Class: 24 City (Jia, 2009) on the production of the film, Jia realizes the power of imagination in his interviews to reawaken sleeping memories of those involved with 420 Factory, and that imagination is an effective device to enliven the experience of them as a community in film. Referred to as “docufiction” (Deppman, 2014: 189), in order not to confuse the audience about the thin line between the actual and the fictive, Jia uses immediately identifiable professional actors and actresses in the staged performance of real life scenarios. By doing so, he realizes his intention to create some of the most traumatic events recounted on screen, because he found that the interviewees who reached out to his team were very willing to publicize their memories yet found it hard to relive those sufferings.

For example, one episode is based on a true trauma condensed into only one sentence in the book for the official history of 420 Factory about the former worker Hao Dali in her 50s. She is played by the famous actress Lu Liping. The fact that she lives alone having lost her child during the arduous migration trip in the late 50s, and that she, despite carrying an infusion bag, works for a minimum pension (pay) at a nominal position in the modern company’s office shows that she is abandoned by the changing destiny of the Factory. Jia’s fictionalized version of her suffering creates an unofficial archive of personal oral history that is true to the values of a marginalized group of working class lagging behind economic change.


Jia Zhangke and Joan Chen on set for 24 City


Loss is also seen in the fictionalized character Xiao-hua, “Little Flower,” played by Joan Chen in the film, who is one of the rare Shanghai young women dispatched to Factory 420 for marketing when the state business was being dismantled in the 80s into manufacturing civil products. She spends her idle time with retired women on screen, performing Shanghai vernacular opera, speaking in Shanghai dialect. Once the “flower of the factory,” this pretty girl from Shanghai enjoyed the bygone factory community life, yet is still single, living alone in Chengdu far away from family. As Jia observes, home is the possession of a space, which has to be situated in time (Wu, 2011: 15); these migrant workers lack a sense of belonging to the host city or to the bygone prosperity they originally depended upon for a good life. Uprooted from their native homes, their sense of home is missing, just as for the Zhang family in Last Train Home.

In terms of techniques and aesthetics, Jia’s signature long takes make the audience ponder upon the bleak urban reality in contrast to the official postsocialist utopian ideology.  Although the film does not include all the interviewees from Jia’s book, he incorporates a lot of them into the film anonymously posing for the camera. The interviews are intercut with moments of silence as the interviewees dig up their sleeping memories, or with black screens with captions of literary references familiar to different generations’ experience. The use of black screens as an artificial intervention in the interviews captures the characters’ sense of loss and encourages the spectators to reflect on the disconnected missing pieces of historical information (McGrath, 2007).

It is worth referring to the West of Tracks (Wang B. , 2002) in comparison with 24 City in that the former documents the abandonment of Tie Xi Qu (West Tracks Region), one of the major national industries established in the same period in Northeastern China. As the hand-held camera moves slowly through the dilapidated factory region in ruins and visual blankness, it preserves the forgotten region in a space of historical value (Wang, 2014: 152). Similarly in 24 City, factory-gate scenes of numerous unidentifiable workers in blue uniforms bicycling out of the gate in the last few days before the private enterprise takes over, the signs being taken down, the workers assembling the last pieces of steel and machineries and of taking down the factory, vast emptiness of the factory panorama shots, idle life of the retired workers playing mahjong and singing in choir, and so on all provoke reflections on the disintegration of the erstwhile glory of an old economic system behind the breakdown of Factory 420.

The independent nature of 24 City and Last Train Home lies in their novelty in presenting the stories of marginalized working class people. Reconstructing the memory through cinema enables valuable individual histories to resurface in today’s society, therefore encouraging the spectators to respond to human conditions and universal emotions in these personal struggles that contribute to the Chinese economy today.




Work Cited

Deppman, H.-C. (2014). Reading Docufiction: Jia Zhangke’s 24 City. Journal of Chinese Cinema, Vol. 8, No. 3, 188-208.

Donald, S. H. (Summer 2014). The Poetics of the Real in Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City. Debate, 1-10.

Fan, L. (Director). (2009). The Last Train Home [Motion Picture].

Jia, Z. (Director). (2009). 24 City [Motion Picture].

Jia, Z. (2009). A Collective Memory of Chinese Working Class: 24 City. Jinan: Shandong Huabao Press.

Li, N. (2012). From Rural Poverty to Urban Deprivation? The Plight of Chinese Rural-Urban Migrants Through the Lens of Last Train Home. Spinger Science+Business Media B. V., 173-186.

McGrath, J. (2007). The Inidependent Cinema of Jia Zhangke: From Postsocialist Realism to a Transnational Aesthetic. In Z. e. Zhang, The Urban Generation: Chinese, Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (pp. 81-114). Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Wang, B. (Director). (2002). Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks [Motion Picture].

Wang, Q. (2014). Memory, Subjectivity and Independent Chinese Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wu, S.-c. (Fall 2011). Time, History, and Memory in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City. Film Criticism, Vol. 36 Issue, 13-21.


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