A Family Tour (Taiwan/Singapore/Malaysia, 2018) [CVF 2019]

China may be surging far ahead of its competitive rivals with its mushrooming economy and erupting middle class but the country still rules over its citizens with an iron fist. A multitude of human rights and censorship issues still trickle down from the top, issues which impact the work of artists across the board, film especially. In the wider discourse surrounding Chinese cinema, the voices of directors like Ying Liang are often only heard by a comparatively small number of cinephiles and academics; nevertheless, their voices are perhaps the most vital ones we as a society need – provocative and unwavering. A testament to their voice are the films they lovingly create and Liang’s latest, the beautifully crafted and perfectly executed A Family Tour is as political as it personal, a visual manifestation of heartache if ever there was one.

Exiled to Hong Kong after her latest film – depicting the trial of a murderer through his mother’s eyes – was decried by the Chinese authorities, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) is a stranger in a (not-so) strange land. With her controversial film playing at a film festival in Taiwan a plan is devised to see her Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) after six years. Following the eponymous family journey across China’s smaller neighbour through distant conversation their time apart is awkwardly evident; an opportune reunion for mother and daughter along with Yang’s native Hong Kong husband (Pete Tao) and their son Yueyue (Tham Xin Yue) is haunted by the omnipresence of state surveillance and fractured by the tumultuous events of the past.

Essentially a slice-of-life picture in the vein of Hirokazu Koreeda, A Family Tour is deeply evocative and insanely biographical. Mirroring the events in Ying’s life following the release of When Night Falls (2012), the parallels between him and Yang Shu make this all too real: Chen’s harassment by the authorities, the demands for extradition and Hong Kong’s ultimate refusal, the necessary support from friends within the territory for film financing and visas. Yang’s yearning for a united family and a place she can call home are as plain to see as the rising tensions between the three adults; though subdued, Gong’s performance is emotionally raw and powerful, the weight of Yang’s situation carried on her shoulders with the intensity of a nervous breakdown. Everything here is subdued – there’s charm in its subtleties and the level of detail Ying has interwoven here is astounding, everything down to actors with the correct dialect for his characters is considered.

Despite its overwhelming sense of quiet its voice bellows in the distance, rumbling with an unprecedented anger which, again, manifests itself in the little moments. Facial expressions and general body language plays a key role, for what is left unsaid (and we get the feeling there is plenty of this) is spoken in other ways; its silence is deafening. Though the dialogue seems restricted to thematic purposes it conjures up the spectral yet very real presence of an all-seeing China, one which sees fit to sever the cord between nation and identity as it sees fit. Through it all the cast and director spectacularly bring this entity to life: it looms over their shoulders like some invasive stranger or tour operator – the role of Peng is fundamentally provocative – without necessarily being there. You truly get a sense of how much Ying has poured himself into this piece and through those subtleties, every outburst, every moment bringing the family together, his tender yet angry vision stands as a gentle monolith for all to see.

With heartfelt and profoundly moving performances the film reminds us what is truly important, no matter how displaced we are, and it does so in such a visually striking way. Building on his already wondrous formula of near photographic takes seen in Ying’s previous film, cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka frames his subjects in a way which emphasises the staggering distance between Yang and her home; the clarity of her isolation as prominent as the pain on her husband’s face with every sacrifice he makes to keep them all together. The pacing is remarkably spot-on and the decision to cast the soundtrack so deep into the mix allows the story and all its emotions room to breathe, grounding us as observers without manipulating our responses – as a result we simply empathise all the more.

Tackling its huge issues with a poignant sincerity and, strangely, urgency, A Family Tour is a touching cornerstone in not just the work but the life of such a prolific yet understated filmmaker. Its patience knows no bounds when showing the family’s extraordinary predicament, from the planning behind the trip to the disconnected ruses necessary to keep suspicions at bay; all of which is handled delicately by those involved. Everything comes to a head in a moving moment shared between Yang and her husband, a moment reducing her stoic façade and leaving her vulnerable; its sheer simplicity unravels the complexities with a powerful message – the plight of the filmmaker, but one felt by all the displaced peoples of the world. Five words have never encompassed a film so much before.

A Family Tour is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 4.