'A Family Tour': Film Review | NYFF 2018

Devastatingly personal.

The latest feature from Ying Liang, in exile from his native China, concerns a filmmaker in exactly the same situation.

Ying Liang is an acclaimed Chinese filmmaker who has been living in exile for years after one of his features (2012's When Night Falls) incurred the wrath of the Chinese government. His new film concerns a Chinese filmmaker living in exile after one of her features incurred the wrath of the Chinese government. So it's not exactly a surprise that A Family Tour, recently showcased at the New York Film Festival, feels deeply personal.  

Displaying moments of bitter anger as well as humor and tenderness, A Family Tour revolves around Yang Shu (Gong Zhe, excellent), a filmmaker living in Hong Kong with her husband Ka-ming (Pete Teo) and 3-year-old son (Tham Xin Yue). Although her husband was born in Hong Kong and is therefore a legal resident, Yang Shu is able to live there only via a series of temporary permits. She hasn't seen her elderly, seriously ill mother Chen (Nai An), who lives in the mainland and has never met her grandson, in five years. But she does manage to communicate with her online. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is still applying pressure, seeking her extradition in order to prevent her from competing her new film about pro-democracy activists.

When Yang Shu is invited to attend a film festival in Taiwan, it offers the opportunity for a brief and secret reunion with her mother. Her husband arranges for Chen to travel there on a sightseeing tour, albeit a very tightly monitored one overseen by a closely hovering guide (played by an actress, billed as "33," who also co-scripted). The family trails the tour group, traveling in taxis and pretending to be old family friends of Chen's, resulting in situations both poignant and borderline farcical. While Yang is in Taiwan, she discovers that several people working on her film have mysteriously disappeared from Hong Kong, most likely kidnapped by Chinese agents. Chen also shares a recording of her being interrogated by the police and being pressured to help them arrest her daughter.

That its storyline so closely parallels the director's real-life troubles inevitably adds a strong emotional resonance to the proceedings. But even without that autobiographical element, the film works solidly on its own terms, presenting a powerful portrait of an artist forced to deal with governmental oppression and recrimination. At the same time, Ying has enough grace to poke fun at himself and his work, as demonstrated in a comical scene in which a taxi driver realizes that his passenger is a prominent filmmaker. He promptly tells her that he finds her films boring. "All those long shots," he complains (mirroring a frequent criticism of Ying's own work).

Mixing its political and personal themes with passionate urgency, A Family Tour somehow manages to convey desperation and hopefulness simultaneously. Considering the recent repressive measures of the increasingly emboldened Chinese government whose leader has effectively established himself as president for life, it's a work that demands to be seen throughout the world. Which it will — except, of course, in the country where it matters most.  

Production companies: 90 Minutes Film Studio, Potocol, Shine Pictures
Cast: Gong Zhe, Nai An, Pete Teo, Tham Xin Yue, 33, You Siao Bai
Director: Ying Liang

Screenwriters: Chan Wai, 33, Yu Siao Bai
Producers: Jeremy Chua, C. Melanopterus, Tseng Wen Chen, Lee Shuping

Executive producer: Yu Pei Hua 
Director of photography: Otsuka Ryuji

Production designer: Wu Lin
Editor: Liu Yue Xing

Composer: Fang
Venue: New York Film Festival

107 minutes