The Mainland Chinese government forced independent filmmaker Ying Liang into exile, but at least they also provided some creative inspiration along with the pain and inconvenience of his separation from family. In 2014, Ying and his wife shadowed his in-laws across Taiwan while they were on a strictly regimented tour. That frustrating so-near-yet-so-far pseudo-reunion germinated into his first feature since his devastating When Night Falls got him into all that trouble in the first place. An independent Chinese director will have a very similar experience with a very similar film in Ying’s A Family Tour (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Yang Shu’s film is called Mother of One Recluse, but its premise is identical to that of When Night Falls. It too focuses on the distraught mother of shut-in son sentenced to death for the murder of six cops. It was again truly a case of temporary insanity, induced by the injuries he suffered during a police beating and his fruitless quest to have his assailants brought to justice. The results for the filmmaking are also the same. Yang now lives as an exile in Hong Kong with her husband Cheung Ka-ming, a legal, born-and-bred Hong Kong citizen.
Even though they skype regularly, it has been over five years since Yang has seen her mother Chen Xiaolin in person and probably even longer since they had a conversation of real depth. Her husband arranged Chen’s bus tour of Kaohsiung City, but the Mainland-based company keeps close tabs on their customers. Nevertheless, the diplomatic Cheung has convinced Peng, the tour director to turn a half-blind eye. However, their initial meetings are still awkward, especially after Yang’s mother gives her a micro-recording of an intimidating police visit she received while Yang’s film was on the festival circuit.
Tour is a breathlessly quiet, delicately humane scream of protest. Ying does not merely revisit the circumstances of his banishment. He also harkens back to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, drawing sharp parallels between the suffering of Yang’s parents then and the conditions for dissidents in Mainland China today. It is especially distressing to hear how family members had to sever contact to protect each other—and may need to do so again now.
Ironically, Nai An is probably still better known as an indie producer, but she is one of the finest screen thesps working today, based on her fearless performances as Chen here, as well as When Night Falls, Girls Always Happy, Old Stone, and the short film What Tears Us Apart. Granted, each time she has played a mother, but they have been very different mothers, yet often almost always with acute sensitivity and overwhelming poignancy.
Arguably, the work of Gong Zhe as Yang, Ying’s analog, is even more subtly challenging, but ultimately deeply moving. She has created a tough, painfully human portrait of an artist who has made some hard choices and must now live with them. Pete Teo is just achingly earnest as her supportive husband Cheung, while co-screenwriter “33” (that’s her name, don’t wear it out) is spectacularly shallow and abrasive as Peng, the busybody.
Clearly, a lot of pain and frustration went into Family Tour, but it is also the product of considerable artistic integrity. Yes, Ying is inescapably critical of the Mainland Communist regime, but he also refers back to Taiwan’s checkered human rights history. It is just a shame when governments keep family members apart, but it happens all the time, particularly in contemporary China. Very highly recommended, A Family Tour screens tonight (9/29) and Monday afternoon (10/1), as part of this year’s VIFF.