In Xiaolu Guo’s unassuming docu, the England-based poet/filmmaker films her Chinese parents’ first trip to Europe in digital black-and-white, less to reveal a culture clash between East and West than to concentrate on personality differences between her father and mother. Not so much a travelogue as a displaced homemovie, “We Went to Wonderland” transforms the most prosaic details (Guo’s father meticulously scrubbing his dentures, long waits at bus stops) into sharply etched portraiture. Intensely humdrum, peppered with startlingly evocative photos of China, Guo’s minimalist parade of understated images, if eminently non-commercial, proves hard to forget.
Unlike the playful blurring of fact and fiction that informed Guo’s impressive “How Is Your Fish Today?,” about a journey undertaken by a writer and his imagined fictional character, “Wonderland” is a more straightforward documentary. Yet both films concern an oddly matched pair’s voyage to a faraway, legendary land.
Suffering from incurable cancer for many years, Guo’s father XiuLin has come to see England, France and ancient Rome before he dies. Not that he looks anywhere near ready to kick the bucket, effortlessly traipsing around the continent and doing exercises to stay limber.
XiuLin is mute, an operation having removed most of his throat. He communicates through rather elegantly scribbled notes, some of which are directly presented to the camera and others of which are used throughout the film as aphoristic chapter headings (“When Picasso died, my daughter was born”). XiuLin’s occasional, matter-of-fact mentions of the past (an intellectual at the time of the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to become a rice farmer) give him a backstory all the more mysterious for his mute gravitas.
Guo’s mother, on the other hand, comes off as Sancho Panza to XiuLin’s Quixote. Round, close to the ground, she is every inch the practical peasant. Though appreciative of the Tate and impressed by the gothic splendor of Parliament, she longs to return to China and can’t comprehend why anyone would leave home. Ill at ease on foreign soil, she constantly tries to de-exoticize her surroundings, whether shopping for comfortable shoes for hubby or buying “white carrots” for dinner.
As Guo escorts her parents around, invisible behind the camera, nothing reads as voyeuristic or overtly affectionate in the steady persistence of her gaze. Yet XiuLin’s willingness to turn his final voyage of discovery into raw material for his daughter’s film is mirrored by Guo’s openness to her father’s interpretation of events: Having taken in the historic sites of Europe, XiuLin concludes that China has too hastily destroyed its past.