The story of A Family Tour is largely the story of its director, Ying Liang. Liang was one of China’s brightest hopes on the Chinese independent film scene, making his name on quiet, introspective, often glacial dramas like Taking Father Home and Good Cats. But in 2012, he made a movie called When Night Falls, a furious condemnation of the Chinese government and legal system over the handling of a 2007 mass murder trial through the eyes of the accused’s mother, and attracted the full wrath of the ruling Communist Party when he refused to edit the film in accordance with their wishes or cancel its release altogether; the Chinese Communist Party notoriously thin-skinned as they are. After threatening home visits, harsh interrogations of his family members, and attempting to buy the film’s rights so that nobody could ever see it, the Party succeeded in forcing Liang into exile. Liang now resides in Hong Kong, doing so for the last five or so years, and has finally returned with a film pretty much about that experience.
Liang’s stand-in is Yang Shu (a brilliant Gong Zhe) who made a film much like When Night Falls about six years ago and too was hounded into exile in Hong Kong. She’s had to spend much of those times alternating between teaching in order to have some kind of income and constantly reapplying for her visa to stay in Hong Kong, a process that needs to be done yearly and is laboriously long, so she’s not had the energy to make any new movies since her fateful feature. Yang is at least able to live with her husband (Pete Teo), a native Hong Kongian, and four-year-old son, but the exile has also forced her to be apart from her ailing mother (Nai An) who lives on the Mainland, and her attempts to secure funding for a new feature centred on the Umbrella Movement keep falling through due alternately to the heat of associating with her and investors mysteriously going missing.
All this indignity is chipping away at her soul, which is reflected in A Family Tour itself. It’s an elegiac and ruminative film, but it also feels like a silent primal scream into the nearest pillow, as Liang’s frustrations boil over through a carefully-considered portrait of a life forced into stopping with no way to fix it beyond capitulation to an authoritarian regime. “Politics are personal,” as Yang puts it in a roundtable interview at the outset of a Taiwanese film festival that’s screening her controversial film, and the massive effect of those personal politics is what the Party cannot stand. We find out that Yang’s family has had a long history of being mistreated by the Party, for things that don’t even count as political instigation, like Yang did with her movie, which they use as pretext for harassing and intimidating everyone even remotely connected to her. How this history of rampant suppression tears families apart and sows resentment that can never be truly worked through no matter how the situation resolves; pointedly, Yang’s mother has never actually seen the film responsible for their current situation (she doesn’t like long movies). How humiliating the process of “reflection” is for those who succumb, parading them up onto state-sponsored media to debase themselves for having an independent thought.
What I think I most love about the film, though, is how there’s a constant life going on around it. Whilst Yang is stuck in the in-between, life keeps happening completely blind to her suffering. The film’s structure comes from Yang’s husband arranging for her mother to go on a continental coach tour around the non-China parts of East Asia, allowing Yang to see her mother by following the coach about without technically breaking the rules by publicly contacting her – an arrangement with hyper-specific instructions everyone must follow at the behest of the tour’s guides, because the Chinese government has already cut major amounts of funding to tourism industries and fraternisation with an enemy of the state would be as good an excuse as any for another slice-and-dice. Liang swings through a collection of different tones as a result, contrasting the sore wound of Yang’s plight with snippets of relatable comedy about being stuck on one of these coach trips, in a way that doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the film. Brief overheard snippets of the tour group and their own inanities, plus the considered and occasionally lush cinematography, hint that a minor retooling and shift in character perspectives could have us watching a brainless wacky travel comedy – which is both excellently sly commentary on government censorship and edits of films, and phenomenal non-meta worldbuilding.
A Family Tour is quietly powerful because of little touches like that. How Yang’s son spends most of his time running away from the grandmother he’s talked to all his life online but either doesn’t recognise or is too shy to be comfortable with in person. Zhe and An’s beautiful central performances. Liang demonstrating a willingness to be self-effacing via a conversation with a cab driver who knows who Yang is but didn’t like her film because he doesn’t care for long-takes. The delayed devastation in one particular smash cut late-on whose significance hits like a bomb when it finally settles in. Mostly, though, I’m drawn to the kind of anger Liang expresses through A Family Tour. It’s not rage, although there is a pinch of that. It’s not bitterness, although there is a heaping of that. It’s not even really despair, even as the gravity of his situation hangs overheard at all times. Rather, it’s a sort of tired sigh, like Liang has tried screaming and can’t quite make it come, so just sighs in a mixture of frustration, defeatism, and resignation. The kind where the sentiment cannot be clearer and the sigher’s inability to go bigger carries far more power than a scream ever could.