We can forgive Liang Ying for having a morose mood. Exiled from mainland China for his work (see When Night Falls (2012) – really do see it), the director has fled to Hong Kong. What happened is that he made a movie persecuting the authoritarian government and they came after him for it, tried buying the film at festival to control its release, and now have a warrant out for his release. The artist has demurred violently and beautifully. He has created a reflexive work about a filmmaker who creates a work that doesn’t go over with the government at festival and now must retract and protect their family, the cost of making art with commentary in China.
The actors in A Family Tour act with an anesthetic lethargy, they speak in apocryphal sorrows, the deadening of their words and eyes brought to stark reality by the camera. The grave instinctive need for the film makes it feel thuddingly imperative. Every scene is filled with a dissonance that lands heavily with the viewer. The author has had the air knocked out of their art and now the art is suffocating, tightly wound and constricted around its own neck, gasping for the relief of artistic liberty.
The exile of a family plays out in heartbreaking quiet. There is little love or connective fanfare behind it, instead meditating on the nature of an artist’s potent anger and internal rage. The censored Liang Ying has become unrelenting and twice as strong. His every shot holds an extra gravity afforded by a sad situation sadly shot. We will come to understand his pain and feel a small fraction of it with him.
Standing in for the director, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) is traveling back to China after her exile. She’s come to show her work at a film festival. Excluded for years, her family has not contacted her mother except through devices. Shu’s young boy has not even met her mom. And now, her mom needs help with an operation. Using the festival as cover, the filmmaker creates tourist schemes where the family can coincidentally spend time in the same place. It sounds like it would play as farcical but is played with the stern severity that the director’s personal life deserves. The cast is achingly believable in their grief. Their familial dialogue is sharp and cutting. We want to cheer them through to a social victory that is impossible.
It is hard to engage with very much Chinese art in the West. We see it for what it is – propagandist and bureaucratically controlled output – a bid for soft power through smoke and mirrors. Work like A Family Tour casts a formidable shadow over China. Liang Ying has made a thoughtful film where every moment hangs on the precipice of grief by a thread. Everything could fall out. The family may never find the unity they had before making art. It is the saddest story at the Seattle International Film Festival. And one of the most important.