Saturday, January 30, 2016

Everybody’s Fine: Zhang Remakes Tornatore

At this point, a parent really ought to be able to deal with a son or daughter coming out of the closet, but things are still very different in China. However, Guan Zhiguo manages to take it in stride. That doesn’t mean he’s progressive, he is just used to his grown children’s disappointments. A series of unannounced visits will yield bittersweet fruit in Zhang Meng’s Mandarin remake of the Giuseppe Tornatore’s Italian film, Everybody’s Fine (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

As you might remember from Tornatore’s film (but hopefully not the 2009 American remake starring Robert “Keep Meeting the Parents” De Niro), when all his offspring bail on Guan’s attempted family gathering, the widower hits the road to pay surprise pop-in visits to his two sons and two daughters. He starts with his youngest son Guan Hao, but the photographer never appears at his studio-flat. Eventually, he moves on to his eldest daughter Guan Qing, who is in the midst of a messy divorce she has kept from him. Viewers also learn from sotto voce conversations, her brother Hao was visiting Tibet, but his whereabouts are currently unknown following a disastrous avalanche.

The Guan siblings duly work the phones, warning each other of their father’s anticipated visits and conspiring to keep their brother’s uncertain fate from him. Unfortunately, the shortfall between the lives Guan Zhiguo expected to find and the messy realities offer plenty of grist for arguments. This is particularly true of Guan Quan, who sold the Shanghai flat his parents bought for him to help fund a dubious start-up. At least, Guan Chu really seems to be working as a ballerina in Macao, but that gig turns out to be less impressive than her father had been led to believe. Even he can tell there is more to Chu’s relationship with her roommate than she lets on, further upending his perception of his daughter.

In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to coopt the concept of the “American Dream” with their “Chinese Dream” propaganda campaign. While intended as a pseudo-nationalistic slogan, many have chosen to interpret it in economic terms not so very different from its American analog. In several ways, screenwriter Xiao Song’s adaptation critiques both competing conceptions of the Chinese Dream, lamenting the damage done to familial bonds and cultural traditions by go-go consumerism and runaway urbanization.

If Zhang was still smarting from the shelving of his 2014 film Uncle Victory because of its star’s drug arrest, he sure plays it safe with Zhang Guoli, who has appeared in overtly propagandistic films such as The Founding of a Republic and Back to 1942. Unfortunately, actor Zhang also plays it safe with his performance. He hunches up his shoulders colorfully enough and putters about with a dignified air, but he never takes us anywhere surprising. However, Yao Chen, Ye Yiyun, and Shawn Dou quite distinctively render the angsts and resentments of Qing, Chu, and Quan, respectively.

Despite the memory-play nature of Guan Zhiguo’s journey, Zhang Meng maintains a surprisingly up-tempo pace. He also recruits a number of big name cameos, including auteur Jia Zhangke, appearing as a Macanese gangster, and Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor, The Pillow Book) flashing some earthy charm as the Sichuan mahjong player with whom Papa Guan strikes up a flirty friendship.

Generally, Everybody’s Fine is still a sentimental melodrama, but it incorporates some intriguing commentaries regarding tolerance and the commoditization of life. Those Chinese particulars and the work of Yao and Ye give it a huge leg up on the De Niro version. A nice, non-taxing film, Zhang’s Everybody’s Fine earns a qualified recommendation for those interested in the all-star cast and its respected filmmaker. It is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.