'A Family Tour' Review: An Intimate Portrait Of Government Persecution [NYFF]

Director Ying Liang has poured himself directly into A Family Tour, a quiet story of the toll government censorship takes on mind, body and soul. His last feature, When Night Falls (2013), tackled the Chinese legal system through the story of an ailing woman whose son was on death row for murder; the critique resulted in Ying being exiled to Hong Kong, rendering him a perpetual outsider. His 2018 follow-up focuses on director Yang Shu who, like Ying, is forced to live in Hong Kong after making a film with a similar premise. Yang is invited to a film festival in Taiwan where she travels with her husband and son and hopes to connect with her own ailing mother, whose trip from the mainland causes a string of complications in a film that's both an incisive statement as well a silent meditation on the ways the personal and the political are entangled.

Gong Zhe plays Yang Shu with the weight of the world on her shoulders. She's been dealing with the Chinese government for years, unsure whether she should call China or Hong Kong her home, though the support of her husband (Pete Teo, attempting to keep a smile on his face through each difficult scenario) in everything from filling out travel documents to dealing with tour guides goes a long way. These simple tasks become a burden when the wrong move could have dire consequences; the mere involvement in an upcoming Yang Shu film project is cause for suspicion. Yang's ailing mother (Nai An) is set to join the family on the Taiwanese leg of their tour, but given Yang's ill-favour with China and her own father's dissent once upon a time, there's a watchful eye on each of them. Their tour, which ought to simply entail spending time with one another like a normal family, must involve separate travel to avoid the notion that they're a family at all. Even Yang's young son, who's meeting his grandmother in person for the first time, is told to pretend they aren't related.

In A Family Tour, the burden of censorship is generational. Ying captures the quiet, often invisible torment from afar, allowing scenes to play out in unbroken master shots that create a disconnect between the characters' paranoia and the normality of their surroundings. Soon, the ostensible normalcy and the constant need for concern become intertwined; as Ying photographs each confrontation and reconciliation, he does so from an objective vantage. Zhe, Teo and An perform with the utmost, naked honesty when their characters are allowed to steal private moments, even in public view (the constant commotion in the background, whether tourists or onlookers, makes the main characters' cautious stillness all the more apparent). It's this honesty, presented as if objective truth — perhaps in contrast to the narratives of the Chinese government — that allows the characters' fears and intentions to become immediately believable, as if their unseen fears of persecution are simply a matter of fact.

While the characters hide and obscure information from the outside world, putting on false smiles and making excruciating small talk, they get right to the point with one another given the ticking clock they're up against. The tour can only last so long. Every question asked of Yang's family, no matter how innocent, carries with it the weight of potential consequence. The intent behind even the simplest of inquiries — like what Yang's son's relationship is to his grandmother — becomes chillingly unknowable. After a while, the status quo of merely watching A Family Tour, regardless of the simplicity of the images on screen, becomes an anxiety-inducing affair.

Even as Yang and her mother catch up after nearly a decade, they're forced to arrive and depart at every stop on the tour in separate cars, while pretending to be casually acquainted. Though perhaps the truth of their relationship, now strained from years of separation, isn't far off from the masks they're forced to wear. They carry their burdens differently, too. Yang Shu, a filmmaker, wants to be outspoken, but A Family Tour plays like an extended epilogue to some fictitious film in which she was once more rebellious (fitting, given the nature of both Yang Shu and Ying Liang's last film). Now, Yang shuffles her feet in defeat, exhausted by her new existence, fearing that any one-on-one meeting between her mother and their tour guide could be "the" meeting, wherein the authorities have finally caught on to their ruse.

Yang's mother, on the other hand, has gone so far past defeat that she's fed up entirely despite her critical ailment. Returning to China for her life-saving surgery could mean never seeing her daughter again (not to mention being troubled further by the authorities) but she also wants to be present when her husband's grave is dug up to make room for a new highway. Even in death, they won't let him rest; this posthumous predicament, along with recordings of the family's old police encounters — passed down from mother to daughter — act as reminders of continual defeat across generations.

A Family Tour is an uncomfortable drama in which even familial wedges bear the stamp of government persecution. No conversation, casual or otherwise, is allowed to go by without some part of it becoming rooted in Ying Liang's real-world predicament. And yet, no rousing speeches nor moments of heroism find their way into Ying's story; rather than wish fulfillment, the film is a reflection of the unsettling quickness with which even fascism begins to feel normal.

What Ying Liang and Yang Shu (and their families) have been dealing with for years may be new to some audiences, but by the end of the film's 107 minutes, the sense of dread lurking in every corner starts to feel second nature, despite Chinese authorities never once featuring on screen. Stillness has never been so momentuous.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10