The kids are more than all right in “Everybody’s Fine” — in fact, they’re such goody-goodies that they turn this Chinese remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 travelogue drama into parent porn. Following a retired widower’s journey around China to look up each of his four adult children, the film is elegantly shot and sometimes engaging. However, helmer Zhang Meng trips over himself in an attempt to please senior audiences, offering heartwarming but simplistic closures that hardly ring true. The pic could, however, suit the viewing taste of some Japanese audiences.
Resembling a continental take on “Tokyo Story” starring Marcello Mastroianni, Tornatore’s “Everybody’s Fine” took stock of the disappointments of adulthood, frayed family ties and Italy’s social changes; a same-titled 2009 Hollywood remake was co-written by Tornatore and helmed by Kirk Jones, and starred Robert De Niro. Although the new film’s screenplay (by Liu Ya and Song Xiao) retain its predecessors’ main plot points, the central theme of children not living up to their parents’ expectations is displaced here by a sappy outcome of everyone and everything being hunky-dory after all.
Zhang, whose repertoire has until now been strictly arthouse (“Lucky Dog,” “Piano in the Factory”), seems determined to appease the authorities after the banning of his previous film, “Uncle Victory,” due to lead actor Huang Haibo’s prostitute scandal. The result is a complete absence of Zhang’s dry Northeastern humor, as well as his empathy with the lowest and most exploited rung of society. Instead, he touts a jingoistic image of the nation’s economic prosperity, with a thriving post-’80s generation basking in the so-called China Dream.
Retired geologist Guan Zhiguo (Zhang Guoli, “Back to 1942”) eagerly anticipates the annual summer visit of his four children, but one after another, they call to cancel. He decides to step outside his Beijing courtyard to check up on his brood.
First he tries to look up his photographer son Hao (Chen He, “Running Man”), who hasn’t called in a while. When he arrives at Hao’s atelier in Tianjin, he finds it long deserted, and in a vision or reverie, he sees the boy as a restless tyke on a tricycle. In a recurrent motif, Guan holds conversations with all his children’s younger selves, reminding him of how little he saw of them as they grew up and all the opportunities to connect he missed. However, the symbolic import of these fantasy scenes feels a bit unsubtle, as when he tells the young Hao not to “do anything dangerous,” just before the boy’s three siblings secretly confer with each other about their brother’s disappearance in Llasa.
Next stop is Hanzhou, where eldest daugher Qing (Yao Chen, “Firestorm,” “Monster Hunt”) promptly foists her lazy and precocious son on Guan so she can get on with her job directing TV commercials. Her surgeon husband is around even less; a dinner at the couple’s upscale condo lets slip all their family tensions through small but telling gestures. In a touching moment, Guan reads out a passage from his diary describing the long journey from Qinghai back to Beijing to attend Qing’s wedding. Brimming with a father’s love and pride, the memory puts the now-jaded couple’s discord in poignant perspective.
Guan then moves on to Shanghai to see his son Quan (Shawn Dou, “Wolf Totem,” “To the Fore”), but is appalled to find he’s left his day job and apartment to launch a startup with other hipsters. Finally, Guan arrives in Macau to visit his youngest daughter, Chu (Ye Qianyun), whom he and his wife groomed to be a ballerina since childhood. But she’s evasive about both her dance career and her suggestive relationship with a bosom friend (Zhang Xinyi, “Uncle Victory”).
Even setting aside the fact that the Chinese government implemented its One-Child Policy in 1978, rendering it theoretically impossible for Guo to father four children, the story substitutes wish fulfillment for complex, honest family relations. Contrary to its two predecessors, in which drama arose from the children’s attempts to hide or gloss over their mediocrity, leading to the patriarch’s final acceptance of life’s frustrated ambitions, Guo’s disappointments with his children later emerge as mere misunderstandings. And while the earlier movies concealed a substantial tragic plot beneath all the white lies and masquerades, anything that might threaten the new film’s warm-and-fuzzy ending is nipped in the bud, rendering the poignant irony of the title (spoken by Guan to his late wife) virtually non-existent.
Rather than allowing feelings to be felt, supposedly hidden agendas are spelled out in long-winded dialogue, with various reiterations of “We didn’t want you to worry.” Yet, there’s not enough clarification as to why, say, Guo hands a new key to each offspring, and the subject is later dropped. And since this is a mainstream film, the original story’s gay element has been muted and transposed to Macau, outside mainland borders.
A veteran beloved as much for his comedy-satires on TV as for his serious film roles, Zhang isn’t as animated here as Mastroianni or as consciously winsome as De Niro, but maintains his own quiet expressiveness and dignity. The secondary leads are adequate without any standouts. Zhang has enlisted a clique of actors and filmmakers to provide cameos, including Vivian Wu, Zhou Dongyu, Wang Qianyuan, Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yibai, but their impact are minimal and their scenes insignificant.
Craft contributions by the cream of China’s tech crew are exceptionally well appointed. Master d.p. Zhao Fei (“The Crossing,” “Let the Bullets Fly”) provides splendid sweeping aerial shots that elevate the film’s visual quality despite its banal travelogue framework. Kong Jinlei (“Blind Masage”), who has edited a number of Jia’s films, sets a gently rolling rhythm rare among frenetic Chinese commercial fare; William Chang’s production design similarly avoids typical mainland splashiness. Only Roc Chen’s music goes all out with its heart-tugging orchestral strains.