'The Family' ('Jia'): Film Review

The Family Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Secular Films

The Family Still - H 2015

A stylish, poised but overlong take on Ozu's 'Tokyo Story.'

Australia-based Chinese director Liu Shumin's debut, which bowed in the Venice Critics' Week sidebar, charts an old couple's cross-country journey to visit their children.

Three years in the making and clocking in at four and a half hours, The Family is a soft-spoken, slow-burning, sobering affair that somehow smacks of déjà vu. Revolving around an old provincial couple's cross-country visits to their geographically dispersed children, Liu Shumin's directorial debut is by and large a Chinese take on Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, its narrative driven by the same elements of historical trauma, inter-generational miscommunication and an abrupt death.

But rather than trusting his own established strengths as a cinematographer - his static, meticulously-framed camerawork first came to attention and acclaim in Zhang Chi's 2008 drama The Shaft - Liu has elected to both show and tell, with every action and emotion explained in on-screen conversations. The result, which bowed as an out-of-competition title at the Critics' Week program at Venice, is a piece which could - and should - have been whittled down to half its length. While certain festivals might see the long running-time as an appealing oddity, The Family would probably secure more festival bookings with a more concise cut.

Liu's decision to have everything articulated in dialogue can likely be attributed to most of his cast being non-professionals. The explicit exposition and the protracted scenes of family bonding - a beach picnic here, a card game in the park there - are probably designed to ease them into the swing of things. While all this should definitely have been left on the cutting room floor - not exactly a dated pun here, given how the film was entirely shot on 35mm - the director has certainly succeeded in teasing comfortable performances from his actors.

Nearly omnipresent from start to finish, Liu Lijie and Deng Shoufang deliver remarkably natural turns as the ailing pensioners fretting about the well-being of their adult offspring. Their cross-country journey begins just as they seek to help their eldest daughter Liqin (Huang Liqin), a divorced schoolteacher and single parent with whom they live in the same creaking apartment, finish the decoration of her new flat. Spurred on by the need to discuss this with their other two children, the couple decide to leave home to pay everybody a visit.

More so than their counterparts in Tokyo Story, Liu and Deng - or the versions of themselves they play on screen - find themselves taking up a front row view of how lives are lived in China in the here and now. Leaving their middle-sized, non-descript home city in the landlocked province of Jiangxi, the couple get to observe the lives of their port manager daughter Xiaomin (Liu Xiaomin) in the seaside city of Fuzhou; then it's onwards to Shanghai, where their youngest son Xujun (Liu Xujun) struggles to get by alongside his wife Lulu (Li Lixuan).

Contradictions and conflicts are never far from the surface, but Liu has made sure everybody has a heart of gold. What's harsh are the circumstances of the present and the past, the latter of which manifests itself as the couple ends their road trip in the small city where they lived - the man as a factory worker, the woman as a schoolteacher - during the turbulent days of the Cultural Revolution.

However much Liu championed his characters' persistence in thriving against the odds, The Family ends on a pessimistic note. A deadly final twist sends the viewer across town, into the home of yet another family in distress. It's a jolting, strangely dramatic denouement mirroring a few of Liu's inconsistent visual sleights of hand - for example, the liberal use of jump cuts, dissolves and fadeouts - but it could also be interpreted as Liu's statement about how anything and everything goes in a contemporary China swept by change.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week)

Production companies: Secular Films, with Hoyn Media, Sinoson Capital, Modern Cinema Lab

Cast: Deng Shoufang, Liu Lijie, Liu Xiaomin, Huang Liqin, Liu Xujun

Director: Liu Shumin

Screenwriter: Liu Shumin

Producers: Shen Lijiang, with Wu Xiaoguo, Wu Mingzi, Chen Shihyong

Director of photography: Liu Shumin

Production designers: Lu Hong, Liu Xujun, Liu Shumin, Lue Feng

Editor: Liu Shumin

Sound designers: He Wei, Wendu'erhan

International Sales: Secular Films

In Mandarin

No rating; 280 minutes