Many’s the child who, when faced with what they feel is undue criticism or complaint from their parents, has reacted with a standard adolescent whine: “I didn’t ask to be born!” It’s a sentiment that resonates a little differently, however, through “Four Journeys,” in which Dutch-based Chinese multimedia artist Louis Hothothot quite sincerely invites his parents to discuss why they had him, and they explain with some candor their regrets about doing so. The ensuing documentary is a feat of family-therapy-as-art that veers in tone from confrontational to affectionate, but remains engagingly audience-friendly even at its most intimate. Having premiered to a warm reception as this year’s IDFA opener, “Four Journeys” looks likely to significantly extend its travel itinerary on the docfest circuit.
Not the most evocative of titles for such a personal and distinctive film, “Four Journeys” refers to a series of travels made by Hothothot (born Louis Li Yiu) from his European base to his parents’ home in Beijing, over the course of which multiple family secrets and sore points are addressed. Sometimes that happens organically, though more often Hothothot wields his camera as a confessional prompt, often to his parents’ consternation. If their involvement in his project is uneasy, he has a more enthusiastic ally in his older sister Jingjing, who seems grateful for his willingness to dredge up unspoken family matters.
The siblings’ complicity — gradually rekindled after the distancing effect of his years away in Europe — is all the more touching given the cultural context of the family’s unhappy formation. Under China’s one-child policy from 1980 through to 2015, Jingjing wasn’t supposed to have a brother at all. The unplanned birth of Hothothot in 1986, making him a literally illegal baby, cost the family dearly in multiple senses, as his parents were drastically fined, while his father’s planned political career ended then and there. More psychologically, it seems, Hothothot’s illicit status left him with a lifelong sense of not belonging, little remedied by what the filmmaker recalls as his parents’ pragmatic, undemonstrative child-rearing style.
“You were brave parents, having children without thinking of their care,” Hothothot and Jingjing say acidly in the most discomfiting of the film’s various family conferences — their parents stoically taking the criticism in a tightly composed, uninterrupted two-shot. They give as good as they get, however, not least when Hothothot’s mother reflects on the “stupidity” of having him. “We were poor then. Why did we make things harder for ourselves?” she shrugs. Yet our sympathies in these thorny interactions are readjusted when even more pained, buried family baggage comes to light. Jingjing, it emerges, was not her parents’ firstborn, and their stifled grief over the death of an infant son has trickled into the siblings’ upbringing in ways they never quite realized.
This is solemn material, but “Four Journeys” is by no means a punishing or downbeat affair. Hothothot’s direct video-diary style is brightened with flourishes of formal whimsy, witty trawls through family photos, and an airy, plaintive score by Harry de Wit. For every needling conversation with his parents, there’s an interlude of mirthful, even absurd interaction between a family not just reconnecting, but perhaps honestly connecting for the first time. As the film pushes the two-hour mark, however, Hothothot and his co-editors would do well to tighten the film’s more gently meandering passages. In particular, snapshots of Hothothot’s home life with his French partner and fellow artist Artemise feel like offcuts from a different film.
While its loose shaping leads “Four Journeys” into a few false endings, it finally concludes on a shattering one, as the family collectively and cathartically admits the pain of a lost child — and belatedly overrules a cultural tradition that denies deceased infants a formal burial and funeral. As a bougainvillea bush is planted where a body was once anonymously discarded, its magenta blossoms signify a brighter future for spiritual only children eventually finding their way back to siblinghood, for a family finally glad of its once-taboo size.