“Keeping a dog is like raising a child. Together, bored. Parted, missing.” The words of the widower, Guan Zhiguo (Zhang Guoli), the character at the center of Zhang Meng’s Everybody’s Fine, sum up the universal malaise of parents and adult children everywhere. Meng’s film is the second remake of the Italian picture, Stanno Tutti Bene (1990), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. The first, also called Everybody’s Fine (2009), was directed by Kirk Jones and starred Robert De Niro as the widower. In a Chinese setting, Zhang raises pertinent universal questions about the nature of personal memory set against the particular challenges of life under the dual system of China, a continuity of rule by Communist authoritarians next to the boom and adjustment to capitalism.
The opening shots of the film, saturated in vibrant primary color, establish an atmosphere of urban pastoralism in Beijing where Guan Zhiguo and his wife raised their four children, all now grown and moved away. A vintage radio, ordinary in context but liable to be fetishized by hipsters, announces the summary of the official news, a reminder of 20th century China. Guan Zhiguo’s sprawling compound teams with books, pets, and tasteful touches that establish the privileged class of its resident. Throughout the film, the color red signifies the classic, the romanticized, the memories real or imagined. The sarcastic humor between Zhiguo and his ex-colleague and neighbor, who joke over their own moral inconsistencies, suggest that these character are not mere conformists.
In this setting, Zhiguo plans a family gathering, makes keys to his home so the children can return home at will, and lovingly shops for food for the family supper that never happens. As the camera backs slowly away from Zhiguo eating alone, one feels his sense of loneliness and disconnection from his family.
After the excuses by the children for cancelling their visit, Guan Zhiguo packs a suitcase to visit each of them. To Millennials, perhaps Guan Zhiguo’s objects of representation, a 35mm camera, film, neat letters from his wife, are archaic. To older generations, they are concrete attachments loaded with symbolism, physical ways and means to preserve the memories of our lives. The mission of Guan Zhiguo’s journey is not merely a social call but to fill in the details of their lives so he may write a memoir to fill the gaps in his memory and inform his deceased wife of their present lives. Like his objects, Guan Zhiguo’s memory is filled with nostalgia, the source of which is the whitewashed representations of his children as told to him by his wife in the letters which he has saved. Before retirement, Guan Zhiguo was a geologist often working away from home. He seeks to pay back his wife for keeping him in touch with his family’s life while he was away, “so one day when we meet my memory is as vivid as yours.” Therein sets up the central conflict of the narrative, memory and the difference between the reality and the nostalgic whitewashed assumptions of truth.
Flashbacks by Zhiguo of his kids as children are one narrative method Zhang uses to establish truth. These imagined interrogations and conversations are the father’s mind’s eye, introducing a sense of magical realism that contrasts with the realist portrayal of modern China. Each of the four adult children cope in their own way with the differences between their lives and what their father expected for them. Their own perspectives challenge their father’s familial and societal worldview, static to 20th century China as compared to his 21st century adult children. Never does Guan Zhiguo confront the structural reasons why his children do not meet his definition of success. The common tie between the siblings is their conspiracy to mold a story for their father that he wants to hear, and, in the short term, conceal the fate of Guan Hao (Chen He), the photographer son whom Guan Zhiguo can relate to most naturally. Hao has seemingly gone missing in Tibet while looking for field recordings of folk songs.
Guan Zhiguo first travels to Tianjin, home to son Hao. On the train he meets a typical “little emperor,” a spoiled only-child who is overfed and groomed for conformitive success. Before knowing that the boy is twelve years old, Guan Zhiguo asks his father if he’s married. It’s a apt commentary on the contrasts between modern parenthood and Zhiguo’s absenteeism. Arriving in Tianjin, Guan Zhiguo finds his Hao’s apartment to be empty.
When he arrives at the home of Guan Qing (Yao Chen), her excuse quickly unravels, as does her myth of her model family. While Qing’s has obtained the most material success of the siblings, living in a chic and modern home, her personal life is tumultuous as marriage has fallen apart. Qing puts on the facade of the humorless and strict mother, a standard to which grandson Zhihao has learned to slyly upend. She cracks the facade of her father’s letters from home, “I learnt this from my mom. Only good news reported.”
Zhang uses dichotomous imagery and sound to illustrate the contradictions between facade and reality. Guan Zhiguo and his grandson skip the boy’s cello lesson to have a fun at an arcade. Their afternoon of gaming and playful expression contrasting with the non-diegetic theme featuring a foreboding sounding cello, representative of a fallen family in which the child apes verbal tactics of conflict and excuses learned from his parents.
While Qing’s challenges focus on the interpersonal, the fate of son Guan Quan (Shawn Dou) presents the most dramatic expose of modern China. The son’s new values, his quest to be an “influential person” are, on one level, in defiance of traditional Chinese authority and on another exemplify the alienation in the values between family of origin and Quan’s current lifestyle. Quan had made the excuse to his father that the school for which he works “has opened several more oral English courses recently,” the connotation of a respectable line of work at a legitimate institution. The myth is broken quickly. Quan is living not in his home but with roomates, a rag-tag group of fellow employees. In truth, Qing doesn’t work for a school but a start up and cult-like phone app, “Three Kingdoms Chinese.” Zhiguo sneaks in on the gathering of app devotees that resembles a cross between a Scientology event, a Samurai cosplay contest, and multi-level marketing scheme convention, with Quan not as a teacher but a mere stage personality. Music that starts as incidental, transitions to the soundtrack of the gathering. East flows the mighty Yangtze River, its rolling waves have washed away all the heroes. The cult of tech replaces the cult of Chinese nationalism and ideology, but the cult of personality remains. This commentary on 21st century China is strikingly blunt.
Zhang is clever to subtly suggest the humor in the dynamics of contemporary China, from a vendor hocking Cuban cigars in front of the posh “Peace Hotel” to the street musician pretending to play an erhu (a traditional two string bowed instrument) on a bench but really miming to a recording. Guan Zhiguo wanders the street of his country like a Chinese version of Monsieur Hulot, observing the absurdities of modernity. More dichotomous scenes present the contrasts. Shanghai’s lit towers rise over the blandly modest and over-crowded tenement structures.
In the China of his children, the patriarch seems like a man alienated from his country. The most intimate and comforting atmosphere for Guan Zhiguo is not in his country’s vast cities but rather on the bullet train where he meets up with a supposed “fortune teller” who turns out to part of roving group of elders having a celebratory time playing mahjong on trains. In their matching pink and blue polo shirts, the group is the epitome of the moms and dads of 20th century China.
Arriving in Macau, a place Lonely Planet calls the “Vegas of China,” Zhiguo meets his cheery younger daughter. The situation of Guan Chu (Ye Qianyun) is the most melancholy, contrasted with her brightly pastel flavored and relatively spacious apartment. While the Vegas comparison is glowing on the surface, both locales are places are broken dreams and cons of false promises that do not bother to count the fallen. Guan Chu is a dancer, or she was as a child, but instead of being tied up with performances of Swan Lake, as she told her father over the phone, Chu is working as a living mannequin in a shop window, dressed like a music box figurine, sadly expressionless.
After a dramatic near assault and subsequent cardiac emergency, Guan Zhiguo’s three children gather by his bedside after he’s had a dream confronting their childhood versions in his sleep. Here, the family comes to terms with their stories of deception and reconciles their unrealistic expectations. While little is resolved substantially, the truth leads to a truce. When Guan Hao returns home safely, he says to his father, “I’m not doing well.” Those four word define what his three other children choose not to say but summarizes their fates.
Like the postwar oeuvre of Yasujiro Ozu, most notable in Tokyo Story, Zhang presents an image of family life where happiness depends not upon success, as defined by children living up to the expectations of parents, but rather, understanding that life itself means coping with disappointments. The Guan family gathers together to celebrate Chinese New Year. This type of neatness of tying up loose ends was sacrosanct to the production values of Ozu, but it suits the motivations of Zhang and Asian filmmakers who wish to break out of the art house and into mainstream western theaters. A noble cause, for the payoff is the opportunity for westerns to experience Chinese characters is a realist fashion as they deal with the same family dynamics universal to modernity.