Tuesday July 02, 2019
Movie Review: A Family Tour (2018)
It should be a wonderful moment.
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), a film director who’s been exiled from Mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong, is seeing her mother—traveling with a tour group—after five long years apart. The meeting is outside a hotel and includes her husband and 4-year-old son. It should be heartfelt. It isn’t. It’s stilted and slightly awkward, and then it’s interrupted by the tour director, who leads the mother away. The mother is walking with a cane, but the tour director still rushes her through the hotel lobby. The sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago and we’ve been dealing with issues of mobility ever since. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director.
Turns out she isn’t that bad. In fact, she allowed this meeting, and others, to happen, despite risk to herself. What we’re witnessing is the long arm of authoritarian rule. Even in another country—ostensibly the same country—it can come between a parent and child.
“A Family Tour” (Chinese title: 自由行 or zi you xing, or, basically, “Travel Without a Tour Group”) generally isn’t my kind of movie. We get a lot of long, still takes of stilted conversation and parsimonious information. It can get dull. Several times I had to slap my cheeks to stay awake. But the stuff beneath the surface is powerful. I left the theater moved and saddened.
The intersection of history and governments helps—that whole dynamic between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and what belongs to whom and by how much.
It’s also autobiographical with an interesting gender reversal. Just as Yang Shu has been exiled from Mainland China for her work, so the film’s director, Shanghai-born Ying Liang was exiled after the 2012 premiere of his film, “When Night Falls,” which was based on a real-life incident: a man was arrested and beaten for riding a bicycle without a license and responded by killing six police officers. Authorities took offense. He now lives in Hong Kong.
It’s also about a film festival (in Taichung) that I saw at a film festival (in Seattle). That’s ostensibly why Yang is there: to be honored at the fest. But she brings along husband and son for the secretive meetings with the mother. They can’t travel with the tour group but they can meet up at where the group is going. The tour guide warns against seeming too friendly, or familial, with each other; but others on the tour assume they’re family anyway. It’s in the way they talk to each other and in the way they don’t.
Mom shows Yang Shu a tape of the authorities questioning her and her husband after Shu fled. They’ve been Skyping with each other, sure, but this is new info. But why did she bring it? Just because? Because she blames her daughter? Her husband is now dead, and his graved is being moved. Development. Oh, and their house is being torn down, too. Development, we’re told. Is it? Or is it punishment for the traitorous daughter? Does mother know and isn’t saying? Does she not know and assumes? We certainly don’t and neither does Shu.
Who knows what and assumes what is part of the mystery. The daughter is often prickly, often ready to start a fight, maybe because she feels she’s done nothing wrong; the mother is often distant, and polite, and mostly interested in her grandson. Maybe because she feels her daughter did do something wrong? Or is it because she’s at the end—she’s dying—and doesn’t have much fight left?
The authoritarian government looms over every meeting but it’s the people at the meeting, filled with human foibles and buried resentments, who can’t make it work. It would’ve been easy for Ying Liang to make this a heroic film. He chose a better path.