There is potential potency to the character work in A Family Tour, but the flat direction renders nearly every scene frustratingly inert.
There’s no shortage of justified anger in Ying Liang’s semi-autobiographical A Family Tour. In following up 2012’s When Night Falls, the film that instigated the director’s exile from Mainland China to Hong Kong, Ying also reckons with its fallout via a fractured family unit. At the center of this is Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), the director’s gender-flipped stand-in, who we pick up on as she travels with her husband and three-year-old son to present a film at Taiwan’s Formosa Film Festival. But this is no mere excursion; Yang’s main purpose is to reunite with her mother, Chen Xialin (Nai An), whom she hasn’t seen for five years. Frail and ill of health, Chen remained in China following her daughter’s exile, and has had to bear the consequences of Yang’s dissident activity, the details of which Ying parcels out via an audio recording of a state police visit. There’s evident danger in this mother-daughter reunion, and so the pair are often forced to become strangers to each other over the length of the film.
Halting, banal conversations proceed against a backdrop of indifferent, tourist-trap spaces. With the passing of the years, it’s clear the gulf of understanding between mother and daughter has only widened. The inherent potency of this scenario is unmissable, and Ying’s rather unflattering (self-)examination of the director character deserves some commendation. But there’s a flatness to Ying’s direction that renders each scene almost unbearably inert. Conversations proceed as if at half-speed, going far beyond convincingly stilted into gratingly soporific; and Gong’s one-note lead performance plays dully against Ying’s master-shot staging. “I am a stranger,” Yang says to a reporter when asked about her identity, a response that speaks to the irresolvable contradictions of her Chinese identity. While the obvious question yields genuine truth, it’s also the mark of a larger problem — the limits of Ying’s closed (filmic) system. And if there’s one thing that A Family Tour articulates well, it’s that even the most fervent, justifiable passion can be stifled by such environments.
You can currently stream Ying Liang’s A Family Tour on Mubi.
Originally published as part of New York Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 1.