Making films in China is far from easy, especially if you’re intent on exposing the misconduct of your own government. Director Ying Liang found this out the hard way after his third film When Night Falls fell foul of the censors and subsequently saw him exiled from Mainland China. Distancing himself slightly from his material, Ying draws inspiration from his own life in following an exiled female filmmaker’s uncover mission to surreptitiously meet up with her mother by “coincidentally” bumping into her at various tourist spots around Taiwan while she pretends to be taking part in a specially organised package tour.
Ying’s stand-in, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), has been living in Hong Kong for the last five years after her last film, which features the same plot as Ying’s offending feature in following the mother of a man facing the death penalty for a notorious violent crime whose case may not have been properly handled, was banned. Married to a Hong Kong film programmer, Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo), Yang has a young son and a teaching position but has been unable to pursue filmmaking thanks to the demands of living in exile. When a Taiwanese festival decides to screen her controversial film and invites her over to talk about it, it seems like too good an opportunity to miss. Together with her compassionate husband, Yang hatches a plot to bring her mother, Chen Xiaolin (Nai An), to the “neutral” territory of Taiwan as part of a tightly organised package tour of Mainland tourists. However, as it might cause problems for Xiaolin on her return if they are spotted together, the family will have to take care to ensure that their meetings seem coincidental – no mean feat when Xiaolin is holidaying with a crowd of sociable coach travellers who will no doubt be wondering why she keeps wandering off on her own.
The ironies of exile abound. Yang is constantly asked difficult questions of identity, whether she considers herself to be a Hong Konger or a Mainlander with pressure on all sides to give the correct response. Meanwhile, she’s confronted with the creeping authoritarianism of Beijing even in Hong Kong as a celebrity doctor who’s said the wrong thing is forced on TV to make the obligatory public self criticism in which he avows his loyalty to the “One China”. Despite being married to a Hong Kong national and mother to a son born on the island, Yang doesn’t quite feel as if she’s truly supposed to be there. As she later almost puts it in an ill-advised social media post her husband is quick to talk her out of, Yang “wants to go home” and being unable to means she can’t really settle anywhere else.
Meanwhile, she’s “free” to travel to Taiwan while her mother can only get there by bribing an official tour guide to get her on a tightly regimented bus trip which requires jumping through a lot of bureaucratic hoops to prove you will definitely be coming back. China famously doesn’t recognise the autonomy of Taiwan which has its own troubled history of colonisation and oppression. One of Xiaolin’s fellow passengers who eventually stumbles on her secret is an elderly man whose father came to Taiwan with the nationalists in 1949 shortly before he was born and was executed there, never to meet his son. The old man has come to Taiwan to see where his dad lived and died while he still has time. Politics has been destroying families since time immemorial but never quite so insidiously as when it decides to use the natural bonds of parents and children as a tool to ensure total compliance within a cruel and uncompromising regime.
Despite having made all this effort, Yang’s interactions with her mother are strange and strained. She’s angry, resentful, guilt ridden and conflicted, unable to meet her mother on an emotional level and unwilling to accept this will probably be the last time she ever sees her. Xiaolin knows her daughter well but her country better, she’s learned to live within its oppressive confines by keeping her head down but Yang seethes with anger towards her mother’s tendency towards compliance. When Yang’s film was blacklisted, it was Xiaolin’s house the men in suits barged into, insisting she force her daughter to re-edit her film, bringing up unpleasant memories of her husband’s time in the re-education camps and making mildly threatening insinuations while Xiaolin holds her ground and refuses to cooperate. Yang’s activism has very real consequences not only for herself but for her family. Ironically enough, Ka-Ming is free to travel back and forth to the mainland, occasionally visiting Xiaolin but too afraid to take his son there in case the authorities try to snatch him.
Restrained as always, Xiaolin poignantly and without irony talks of what she terms the “Chinese way of love” – that you might have to sever connection with those closest to you in order to keep them safe. Familial love, or any kind of love at all, is a liability and a burden that puts both parties in danger from those that would seek to use their feelings against them. Like the rather brusque tour leader who has taken a significant risk in facilitating this odd reunion puts it, “what can ordinary people do?”. Ying cannot find much of an answer. Ironically enough, the Chinese title translates as “free travel” – the very opposite of a package tour in which one has the right and the opportunity to go wherever one wants whenever one wants to, unencumbered by the desires of the collective. A meditation on the inertia of exile, the pain of separation, and the cruelty of the uncompromising systems which abuse real feeling in the name of control, A Family Tour (自由行, Zìyóuxíng) is a heartbreaking exercise in futility in which the only way forward lies in melancholy resignation.
Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.
Trailer (English subtitles)