We Can’t Go Home Again: Ying Liang’s “A Family Tour”
Ying Liang’s When Night Falls (2012) is one of the more powerful works of historical fiction to emerge from modern China. It’s a film about deafening silence, of having your reality changed and losing your voice when you need it most. It concerns the mother (Nai An) of Yang Jia — hero to some, murderous terrorist to the government — during his trial in the mid-2000s. He was beaten by the police and apparently retaliated by detonating a bomb outside police headquarters and stabbing a dozen officers. Ying’s film isn’t about the bombing, nor does it even feature Yang as a character. It’s just about the look of his mother as the trial is carried out. Her neighbors begin seeing her differently, and she turns bitter whenever anyone reaches out to her. Her world is a mausoleum now, waiting for the body of the son she’ll never see again.
When Ying made the movie, he was stalked and tormented by the Chinese government, who wanted him to apologize for making it. When he wouldn’t, they tried to buy the negative to prevent it from being seen. Ying’s been living in Hong Kong ever since, afraid to go home and see his own mother, to whom he dedicated When Night Falls (the title literally translates to: I Have Something to Say). He made a short film about their separation in 2017 entitled “I Have Nothing to Say” and expanded on that with the same cast in its sequel, A Family Tour. In the film, a young filmmaker Yang Shu (a Ying surrogate played by Gong Zhe) has worked out a scheme with her artist husband (Pete Tao) to see her mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An, again). The couple will bring their son (Tham Xin Yue) to meet his grandmother in neutral Taiwan while Chen Xiaolin takes a government-sponsored vacation. Chen Xiaolin’s handlers have been bribed by the Chinese to make sure that she’s never alone with her daughter for too long and are to report anything back to the tourism board, meaning that any conversations about potentially fleeing China are to be had in secrecy, in fleeting moments away from the rest of the group of Chinese tourists. Chen Xiaolin has an operation on the horizon and Yang Shu wants her desperately to try and come back to Hong Kong with her so she can aid in her convalescence.
Ying’s deceptively placid mise-en-scène, the same patient and searching gaze that made the most of the vulnerability and sorrow of his beleaguered hero in When Night Falls, has changed significantly since leaving his homeland. Where once anger and empathy bristled beneath calm if corrupt surfaces, now reigns an exhaustion, a sleepwalking through breaks in unbearable tension. The film is a series of quiet navigations with earth-shaking consequences. Yang Shu and her mother have so much between them that in order to discuss a possible exit strategy, so that they might spend some of their lives together, they have to first navigate their complicated history. Chen Xiaolin disapproved of her daughter’s filmmaking activism after years of first-hand experience with the Chinese government’s repressive tactics, a natural by-product of living in the mainland with a liberal leaning viewpoint. She’s too old and tired now to join her child in her dissent, and doesn’t seem open to any of her schemes to bring them closer together. Yang Shu’s waning confidence in her abilities to effect change, even in her own life, is heart-breaking, all the more because Ying captures it in simple compositions and long takes, letting each rising bout of upset sink into his heroine’s body. There isn’t a more effective movie this year in drawing emotion out of both characters and audiences. What, after all, could be more heartbreaking than the dawning realization that a loved one has started to make peace with never seeing you again?
Though set partially at a film festival, film is hardly discussed as anything but totems of a simpler time. Art and protest feel like interferences from a more forgiving reality, in which change can be effected by a movie or a Facebook post. It was Yang Shu’s protestations that led to the splintering of her family, and try as she might to patch things up, there doesn’t seem to be a way back. A heartbreaking moment finds Yang Shu and her husband discussing the potentially damaging consequences of going public with their story. There is still plenty the authorities can take from them. If the public outcry about her exile hasn’t been enough to help, then what good would one more photograph of her wearing a sign do? That may be the film’s cruelest truth, that its own existence is little else but a cry in a vacuum.
Ying Liang’s A Family Tour opens in New York City at The Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the 56th New York Film Festival on October 2 and October 3.