Still from Last Train Home, which has its U.S. broadcast premiere Tuesday, September 30, 2011 on POV.

“Finish your plate. There are people starving in China.”

That’s something I heard as a child. You might have heard it too. What did it bring to mind? Perhaps a child with a small bowl of rice — an abstraction in the mind of a Western child. What did I really know about hunger or the value of food?

For much of my youth, China was the standard for deprivation — a nation of people with a background of hardship. I think of the countless thousands entombed into the foundation of the Great Wall during its construction.

Of course, there’s a competing narrative that’s captured our perception of China more recently — that of an emerging superpower, owner of our debt and the inevitable one-to-beat for the next few decades. Straddling both perceptions is Last Train Home, Lixin Fan’s indelible film about a Chinese migrant family’s struggle to survive. Fan’s greatest feat, in addition to the film being exquisitely shot and fluidly told, is that it actually breaks beyond the abstractions and perceptions about China, and brings us the cold, hard reality of one family, the Zhangs.

It’s ostensibly about the holiday period when Chinese migrant workers try to return home. Yes, it shows the utterly desperate travel conditions the Zhangs endure — hours of standing in the rain, mob stampedes, cramped quarters, and prices they can barely afford — but it’s really a 360-degree portrait. It puts the complaints we American travelers might have about getting stuck at JFK to shame.

And it puts so much else into perspective: working late nights, strained relations between family members, getting sick on the job, hoping for a better life for our children. Our troubles don’t hold a candle to what the Zhangs have to endure. But, I have to admit, despite the film’s miraculous achievements (and I’m not exaggerating — Last Train Home is one of my ten favorite documentaries of the past five years), I am not sure we Westerners can really appreciate the plight of the Zhang family. As much as it puts a face to that adage about Chinese hardship that we heard as children, I’m not sure we can really know how it feels.

This veers toward a philosophical question: Is empathy for another human being possible? I think so. But when the life experience is so different, and the particular cultural, historical and social context is so foreign, then it is very, very difficult. As much as this film allows us to witness the plight of the Zhangs, I don’t think I can really get inside their heads.

I cannot praise Lixin Fan’s accomplishments more than I already have (it’s also been universally lauded by critics, audiences and award shows), but I also cannot help feeling a little cynical. This is not a heartwarming tale. And as much as it brings the world closer, it also reminds me how far apart we are.

Did you feel the same way about Last Train Home? You can watch the film on POV, then share your thoughts here.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen