Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 04, 2018 4:08 am 
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Moments of the pain of exile

I know Ying Liang only from his first feature, Taking Father Home. I saw it in San Francisco at the 2006 SFIFF with the young Travis Kirby, whose review for Filmleaf said he found its low budget and amateurish cast distracting. A negative response from the Chinese government to Liang's third film, When Night Falls (2012), led him to move to Hong Kong, where he made this, his first film in six years, set in Taiwan. In an online New Yorker article Richard Brody points out that there was a retrospective of Ling's work at Lincoln Center in 2009. Brody says Ling is "one of the greatest filmmakers in the world" and called A Family Tour " the best dramatic feature I’ve seen (so far)" in the current New York Film Festival. There must have been a lot of progress since 2006, but Brody's comments indicate that technical polish has been slow to come in Ying's work.

A Famiiy Tour is autobiographical. Its focus is a filmmaker (in this case a woman) out of favor with the Chinese government and living in Hong Kong, who seeks a long-delayed reunion with family members, hiding their real relationship. Jay Weissberg says in his Variety review that even as far back as Taking Father Home Ling has been casting "a sharp, unflattering light on Chinese society deformed by decades of Party rule." A Family Tour is a portrait of the heartbreak of exile and to a lesser extent a satire of people who succeed in China by playing the dominant materialistic game. There is no problem with the acting this time. However a fifteen-year-old American as Travis was back then might find it nearly as tedious as Taking Father Home.

This is because Ying's method is to focus on a series of ultra-specific, almost realtime sequences steeped in the tedium of the quotidian. Except this complicated attempt for a filmmaker daughter in exile, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), her husband the Hong Kong-born and legal Hong Kong resident Cheung Ka-ming (Pete Teo), and their feisty, intractable four-year-old son (Tham Xin Yue) to meet with her mother from mainland China, Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) in Taiwan is not only a rare event, but probably not likely to happen again. Chen Xiaolin is walking with a cane, and turns out to be on the brink of an unspecified operation. She is not well, and collapses and is temporarily hospitalized during the tour.

The film Yang Shu is in exile for is called When Night Falls. The reason for this charade, is that the only way ordinary citizens of mainland China can come to Taiwan is to join an organized tour. But the family is hounded constantly by Peng (“33,” also co-scriptwriter), the annoying female tour supervisor, and by other tour members and cab drivers with prying questions or suspicions or worries about their status. Their little son has been coached not to reveal that Chen is his grandmother.

Yang Shu, who is also here for a new film being shown at a film festival, at first seems, withdrawn, distracted and angry. It takes her some time to open up to her mother, whom initially she doesn't even think she can find words to talk to after their years of separation. They have had only periodic conversations online. Relations aren't helped when Yang’s mother gives her a pencil recording of an intimidating police visit she received when her daughter's last film was showing in a festival (which the authorities, in Ying's case, tried hard to block).

Chen has never seen the boy in person, explaining why he is skittish with her, and only at the very end consents to pose with her for a selfie, which she will treasure. Chen refuses their request that she go to live with them in Hong Kong. She partly justifies, or makes the best of, her revelations that her husband's grave will be moved and her house will be demolished in China's endless renovations. She says the compensation offered isn't bad. She insists on returning, and Yang Shu's husband insists on accompanying her. We also learn about her husband's political persecution, more than her daughter had previously known.

This is a very specific, and very sad film. It is mired in details. Yes, Ying's knack for the humdrum detail is remarkable, but this means the film is also sometimes tedious. Moments of poetry come in actual poetry and journal entries spoken by Yang Shu. There are also moments of playfulness or humor, but they seem all-too brief. This is a bad trip.

I watched A Family Tour at a small public NYFF screening in the FSLC Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center that began with the announcement that Ying Liang had been prevented from coming, due to visa problems in Hong Kong - the same problems repeatedly alluded to for Yang Shu in this film. His statement was read, in a strong French accent, in which he cut himself short saying he did't want to give an impression of sadness, because that isn't the way his life is. But, well, sadness is the overwhelming impression. Except that, unyielding and unfun as this film is, it is in its way a well-made film, a film of intense commitment and conviction, and those are never anything to be sad about. (For more details about the film, see Sam C. Mac's Slant review as well as Jay Weissberg's Variety review, from Locarno, as well as Joe Bendel's review on JC Spins,, which points to some aspects not mentioned elsewhere, including parallels between China today and the worse times of the Cultural Revolution, with family members again forced to sever ties to protect each other.

A Family Tour/ 自由行 (Zi You Xing, "Free Travel"), 108 mins., debuted at Locarno 1 Aug. 2018, also showing at Vancouver and the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review 3 Oct. 2018.

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