Things are bad in America, but Ying Liang’s story is an aching reminder of how much worse they could get. Six years ago, the Chinese filmmaker was forced into exile when his film “When Night Falls” was ill-received by the local authorities. A furious, fictionalized examination of the real multiple homicide that rocked Shanghai in 2007, the film ran afoul of the Party by focusing on police abuse, and the State’s barbaric treatment of the killer’s mother while her son was on trial. The government made threatening visits to the filmmaker’s house, interrogated his family members, and they tried to buy the rights of the movie in order to make it disappear — eventually, Ying was left with no choice but to leave his life behind and flee to the relative safety of Hong Kong.
Now, Ying has returned with another lucid and quietly devastating indictment of China’s totalitarian rule, but this one is burnished with the pain of personal experience. If “A Family Tour” is sweet and more sedate than the dissident filmmaker’s previous work, it might also be the angriest thing he’s ever made. The coiled fury he displayed in “When Night Falls” (and “Taking Father Home” before that) has metastasized into a paralytic rage; his homeland’s betrayal is no longer just the focus of his life’s work, but also the full extent of his life itself.
The self-reflexive and broadly autobiographical story hinges on an exiled Chinese filmmaker who’s had to live in Hong Kong since making a subversive feature about a mass-murder in Shanghai; if not for the fact that Yang Shu is a woman (actress Gong Zhe radiating the glum strength of Charlotte Gainsbourg), this tender and meditative drama might feel too much like a memoir to sustain its heartbreaking sense of distance.
Yang isn’t forced to go it alone. Her indefatigably kind husband (Pete Tao) was born in Hong Kong, which allows him the freedom to move between the territory and the mainland with impunity. And while Yang Shu is surely grateful that her adorable three-year-old son (Tham Xin Yue) has been afforded the same luxury, her intractable feelings of isolation are further deepened by the sense that no one else shares her (lack of) status. Only her ailing mother, Chen Xiaolin (Ying regular Nai An), who’s been abandoned to die back at home, can fully understand the filmmaker’s pain.
But Yang Shu’s husband, in his infinite sweetness, has devised a plan to bring his entire family together — to reunite Yang Shu with Chen Xialon, and allow the frail old lady to meet her grandson in person before she dies. The scheme revolves around the Taiwanese film festival where Yang Shu is slated to screen the inflammatory movie that started all this trouble. Chen Xialon’s travel has been severely restricted, but if she goes on a (very closely monitored) sightseeing tour of Taipei at the same time that her daughter and grandson are in the city, who’s to stop them from bumping into each other? They’d still have to be discreet — someone is always watching — but it’s their only hope.
With such a rich (and sort of zany) premise like that, “A Family Tour” could go in any number of directions; Ying tries them all to varying degrees. At times, the movie almost resembles a narcotized satire, with overbearing tour manager Peng even pushing things towards screwball territory whenever she pops up to keep Yang Shu and her mother apart. At other times, flecks of poetry — written out on screen — suggest a free-form meditation on home and belonging.
For the most part, however, Ying roots the story in a post-traumatic state of grief, sustaining an atmosphere that’s equal parts anger, bargaining, and depression (it’s too late for denial, and acceptance isn’t really on the table). Yang Shu isn’t only trying to reconcile the various pieces of her fractured identity, but also mourning the ones she can never reclaim, as her mother’s terminal illness makes it clear that some rivers only flow downstream. “We just won’t see each other again,” Chen Xialon says to her daughter at one point. “No big deal.”
Ying’s previous work was marked by an affinity for probing long-shots, but “A Family Tour” is striking for the subtle ways in which he deviates from that aesthetic. The camera is still largely motionless and kept at a comfortable remove, but the picture quality is vastly superior to the consumer-grade cinematography of “When Night Falls.” The movie looks kissed with the digital gloss of a mainstream drama, or of happy vacation photos, and to insidious effect: From the outside, Chen Xialon seems like just another tourist, the inhumanity of her government’s oppression rendered invisible by design. Pain is omnipresent but out of sight.
“A Family Drama” moves at a disarmingly glacial pace, but its breeziest moments are also its most devastating. Ying’s careful blocking sees trauma where a bystander (or a nosy tour guide) might not see anything, as all sorts of hurt is tucked into the folds of his careful frames. One especially wrenching scene derives its power from how Yang Shu and her mother sit on the opposite sides of a bus; another from how the filmmaker’s son is sleeping in the foreground, the shot held long enough for everyone to find him. The effect is subtle, but compounded by an understanding that anything Yang Shu does to provoke the authorities could make life harder for her family; anything she does in response to the past, might have terrible consequences for the future.
It’s enough to make this film — the one that Ying Liang has made — resonate with an awful desperation. “A Family Tour” is the work of someone whose need to reflect on his trauma is urgent enough to risk whatever hope he still has left. “No One Can Stay an Outsider,” boasts the slogan for the festival that Yang Shu is attending. But neither she nor Ying Liang have been left any other choice.
“A Family Tour” premiered at the 2018 Locarno International Film Festival. It will screen at the New York Film Festival later this year. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.