Perhaps it’s because “The Family Tour” is semi-autobiographical that this intelligently affecting story of exile and displacement is Ying Liang’s most highly polished film to date. Or more likely, it’s because the five years since his previous feature, “When Night Falls,” have matured his already well-honed aesthetic. Dating back to his powerful 2006 debut “Taking Father Home,” the dissident director has been casting a sharp, unflattering light on Chinese society deformed by decades of Party rule. Currently in exile himself after running afoul of the government, Ying has externalized his conflicted feelings of disconnection in this story of an independent mainland filmmaker living in Hong Kong who can only meet up with her mother in Taiwan, where she has booked her on a strictly monitored tour of the island. Sensitive and surprisingly intimate given Ying’s fondness for long shots, “Family Tour” should travel widely via festival bookings.
This is Ying’s first film without the credited collaboration of his wife Peng Shan, though her influence, given the parallels between reality and fiction, can’t be casual. There is a little more exposition than usual in the director’s work, and far less unsaid, which could make “Family Tour” his most successful film to date even though at times the need for explication feels almost gratuitous — “almost” because the film’s ability to capture the unnerving feeling of exile, of belonging and yet not, is superbly realized. Ying also brings out the acute differences between those who stay and those who leave, the resignation of compromise versus the exhausting battle for justice.
When the Formosa Film Festival in Taipei invites Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) for a screening of the film she made five years earlier, the Hong Kong resident sees it as an opportunity to catch up with her mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An, so moving in Ying’s “When Night Falls”), living in Sichuan. Organizing the visas is the province of Yang Shu’s husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo), whose Hong Kong birth gives him a freedom that neither his wife, with her temporary Hong Kong residency card, nor his mainland mother-in-law possess. Knowing that the authorities will be watching, Ka-Ming books Mrs. Chen on a tour to Taiwan and arranges with the hilariously abrasive tour manager Peng (the numerically named “3 3,” also co-writer) to let him and Yang Shu trail the group, pretending to be old family friends. That way fewer questions will be asked, and Peng can keep an eye on everything to make sure Mrs. Chen returns to the mainland.
The meeting is awkward: Mother and daughter video-call frequently, mostly so Mrs. Chen can see her 3-year-old grandson Yue-Yue (Tham Xin Yue), but that’s a stilted substitute for real contact. Yang Shu can’t disguise her distress at finding her mother thinner than expected and using a cane, and this awkward reunion under the watchful gaze of the tour manager, combined with the film festival, provides a roller-coaster of emotions as she’s forced to confront the meaning of exile and the psychological distance between herself and her mother.
Bridging that gap is Ka-ming, whose warmth and good nature somehow manage to be utterly genuine even when he seems almost impossibly kind. His unwavering support for both women allows Yang Shu to process new information her mother brings, including a recording from five years earlier, when the authorities tried to put pressure on Mrs. Chen to make her daughter change her film. While the hardships her mother endured over the decades become clearer, so too does Yang Shu’s exasperation with her mother’s acquiescent behavior. Exile in Hong Kong has made the filmmaker ever more intolerant of Chinese state control, forgetting that in order to live on the mainland, compliance is a learned necessity.
That description may seem melancholy, but Ying uses humor and tenderness to leaven the film and make it more human. A memorable scene between mother and daughter in an otherwise empty tour bus is beautifully discreet and emotionally satisfying. Peng and her over-cheery sidekick Pai (Yu Siao Bai) are hilarious yet also scathing caricatures of the new China, insufferably bossy, not-so-passive agents of the state who are friendly only if kick-backs are involved. Each person in “Family Tour” represents an element of the region and its fractured history, from Mrs. Chen’s old guard who suffered silently for so long, to Yang Shu’s exhausted activism to Peng’s self-serving Party employee. Genteel Ka-ming is old Hong Kong, though how sustainable that is in the long run isn’t addressed.
Stylistically Ying’s fondness for establishing shots remains something of a calling card, fixing his characters in their environment while using sound and his performers’ charisma to reinforce their individuality within a mass. Digital quality is also significantly higher than in Ying’s earlier work. The invented Formosa Film Festival’s slogan, “No One Can Stay an Outsider,” may seem like too easy a catchphrase in this instance, and yet its multiple meanings intersect with the film’s themes in ways worth pondering.