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A French mother grieving over the death of her son decides to retrace his last steps abroad in Journey Through China (Voyage en Chine), photographer Zoltan Mayer’s thoughtful and well-lensed debut feature, although one that ultimately feels more lightweight than the subject matter it’s portraying. Starring Belgian actress Yolande Moreau (Seraphine) alongside a cast of talented locals, and featuring lots of eye-popping scenery captured on location in the province of Sichuan, this smoothly packaged tour will score decent numbers in France while crossing over to a few screens overseas.
Sixty-something nurse, Liliane (Moreau), seems to be experiencing some sort of late-life crisis, silently wailing in the arms of her laconic but loving husband (Andre Wilms). We soon learn that her son, Christophe, died in an accident in China, his body still kept at the morgue. Without warning, Liliane takes it upon herself to travel all the way there and bury him for good in an elaborate yet necessary attempt to “faire son deuil,” as the French call the process of going through a period of mourning.
Arriving first in Shanghai, and then traveling by train to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, Liliane certainly looks like a fish out of water in a place where she doesn’t speak a word of the language nor seem to understand the local customs. But she’s determined to take care of business, while also trying to learn more about the life of a child who had a distant relationship with his parents, eventually settling in China to work as a photographer.
Written by Mayer and inspired by his own experiences in Asia, the script definitely takes its time in revealing key pieces of information — so much so that the backstory rationing feels like a bit of a ploy during the film’s first half. When Liliane finally crosses paths with some of Christophe’s close friends, including a gorgeous fashion designer (Qu Jing Jing) he had a love affair with, the story deepens up to a certain point, but the characters are never embodied in a convincing way. (This includes the absent Christophe, who comes across as a semi-martyr for both his companions and his mother.)
It soon becomes clear that the movie is really more about Liliane than it is about her Chinese counterparts, who mostly feel like background elements guiding her through the interval of grieving. There’s of course nothing wrong with that, and classics like Jean Renoir’s The River and Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy — whose title was likely an inspiration for this one — have shown that the best way for audiences to grasp foreign cultures may be through the eyes of another foreigner.
Yet despite a sensitive approach to the material, and an observant style reminiscent of Asian auteurs like Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien, there’s something about Journey Through China that fails to convey the same sense of emotional discovery — even if the finale tires very hard to do so, combining Liliane’s internal and exterior quests into a single, and rather predicable, closing sequence.
The always-watchable Moreau nonetheless brings much to the table here, saying a lot with very little, and often with nothing at all given the huge language barrier. If the film fails to truly enlighten us about Liliane’s life, the actress still turns her into a touching person, while the various locals — including a helpful retiree played by jazz impresario Lin Dong Fu — all become likeable characters.
Shot in lush tones of green, red and brown, with DP Georges Lechaptois (Grand Central) framing many scenes through windows or reflective glass, the movie makes the most of its attractive surroundings, hopping between rustic cityscapes and blooming forests. Mayer certainly has an eye for a country he clearly loves, and it’s that sentiment of adoration which is most felt by the end of Journey Through China, although it’s one that only seems to scratch the surface of a people and a place.
Production companies: Haut et Court, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Yolande Moreau, Qu Jing Jing, Lin Dong Fu, Liu Ling Zi, Andre Wilms
Director, screenwriter: Zoltan Mayer
Producer: Carole Scotta
Executive producers: Julie Billy, Natacha Devilliers
Director of photography: George Lechaptois
Production designer: Daphne Deboaisne
Costume designers: Dorothee Lissac, Dodo Gu Yeli
Editor: Camille Toubkis
International sales: Indie Sales
No rating, 96 minutes
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