In 2012, indie Chinese director Ying Liang completed the film When Night Falls
based on the controversial 2008 case of Yang Jia, who stormed a Shanghai police station and killed six police officers. The case drew great attention not only for the shocking violence, but also for how the authorities handled the case. Yang Jia, who was previously mistreated by the police and tried behind closed doors, drew sympathy from pockets of the Chinese internet that aired their discontent with China's opaque justice system. Ying Liang brought When Night Falls
, which recounts the case from the perspective of Yang's mother, to overseas film festivals without official permission and refused to yield to censors. The price for his artistic defiance was exile.
Unable to return to mainland China where he would likely be arrested, Ying Liang stayed in Hong Kong. A Family Tour is his first feature-length film since When Night Falls, and the simple story brims with the complex feelings and experiences of a director in exile. Ying uses the character of female director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) as his proxy in this semi-autobiographical drama.
Like Ying Liang, the protagonist Yang Shu has lived in Hong Kong ever since her last film ran afoul of Chinese authorities. She cannot return home to see her mother (Nai An), and her mother cannot come to Hong Kong to see her, but they find an opportunity to meet in Taiwan. Yang Shu's mother joins a guided tour to Taiwan while Yang Shu, who is showing her banned film at a Taiwan film festival, tags along the tour itinerary with her husband and son.
Filmed in Ying Liang's staple naturalistic, docudrama-like style, A Family Tour keeps the whirlwind of emotions under the surface, save for Yang Shu's occasional outward bursts of frustration. The reunion of mother and daughter is wonderfully understated and highlights the common suffering and different mindsets of two generations. Yang Shu is indignant and irritable, her hard edges only slightly softened by a supportive husband and cute son. Her helplessness over the current situation is laced with anger and bitterness. In contrast, the mother, who is regularly monitored and visited by authorities because of Yang Shu, is a picture of calm resignation as she relays major updates and acknowledges that she will likely be unable to meet her daughter again.
A Family Tour is clearly Ying Liang's own deeply personal account about his displacement and bittersweet family reunion, but the personal is also inevitably political considering his background and themes. This understated self-reflexive film by a dissident Chinese director in a changing Hong Kong is especially stirring and relevant in the current climate.