Chinese director Ying Liang is perhaps most well-known for the personal price he paid for producing When Night Falls (2012), a docudrama which sealed his permanent exile from his homeland. A scathing critique of China’s totalitarian regime, When Night Falls focused on the death of Yang Jia, a man who was arrested and horrifically beaten by the police for riding a bicycle without a license. After repeated harassment from the authorities, Jia eventually stabbed six policemen to death and was given the death sentence. When Night Falls, or its Mandarin translation I Still Have Something to Say (我还有话要说), is focalised from the perspective of Jia’s grieving mother. By directing this docudrama, Liang was viewed to be sympathetic towards political dissidents in China and hence, was forced to pay the price with exile. He now lives in Hong Kong.
Acting as a follow-up to When Night Falls, Liang’s A Family Tour (自由行, 2018) works as a semi-autobiographical film on the consequences his exile has had on his loved ones who still reside in China. If I Still Have Something to Say is a testament to his legacy of active political dissidence, A Family Tour is a quietly devastating rumination on whether this dissidence is actually worth the personal sacrifice. With Liang’s latest film, there is a very real sense that there is nothing left for art to say. If the artist has to lose their loved ones in the name of a futile activism, there comes a point when art becomes a purely selfish endeavour rather than a heroic one.
A Family Tour follows a relatively simple plot. Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) is a Chinese director exiled from China after making When Night Falls — the exact same film Liang was persecuted for. Like Liang, Shu lives in Hong Kong. She leaves behind her widowed mother Mrs Chen (Nai An), in China, who soon becomes terminally ill. Since Shu is invited to a film festival in Taiwan, her husband uses this opportunity to arrange a meeting between Shu and Mrs Chen in Taiwan. Mrs Chen visits Taiwan by joining a tour group. However, due to Shu’s status as a political dissident, Mrs Chen is rigorously monitored by the Chinese authorities for fear that she might leave China to reunite with her daughter. Throughout the film, Shu and her husband trail behind the tour bus in a taxi, stealing every little moment they get to reunite with Mrs Chen.
Just like the hectic schedule of any tour group, every meeting between Shu and her mother is weighed down by the fatalistic recognition that whatever time they have can only be borrowed. However, as Shu comes to realise, there is nothing to return — her dissident actions condemns her mother to die alone in sickness. There is nothing heroic about that. Ironically, while When Night Falls brings some semblance of closure to a grieving mother, Shu’s own mother pays the price by grieving the loss of her entire family. To this end, Liang’s latest film engages in a self-conscious criticism of his entire oeuvre. It is neither a complete indictment of his political dissidence nor a surrender to a totalitarian regime, but an exploration of the harrowing consequences activism brings to dissidents and their families. Just as the film moves at a weary pace with barely any score for company, the painful exhaustion of fighting a lost cause slowly begins to haunt the oppressed.
More importantly, the film asks if political dissidence through art can ever amount to any quantifiable change. Time and time again, people outside Shu’s prestigious film circle are highlighted to be unaware of her work, which highlights how art remains confined to elitist spaces. It is a pity then, that Mrs Chen has to grieve the loss of her family in order for Shu’s work to receive critical acclaim by a select few at a film festival. The lack of public interest in Shu’s work contrasts with the huge personal sacrifice paid for this work, suggesting that Shu may have just placed herself on a pedestal with regards to how impactful her activism is. Here, Liang brings our attention to the limits of art as a medium of political dissidence. If all art is political, art cannot possibly stand apart from the political structures it is inevitably intermeshed in. Issues of class differences, media censorship, and brutal political regimes all play a part in the potential of art as dissidence.
Within this context, Mrs Chen’s quiet resignation towards China’s totalitarian regime is not an act of defeat but a recognition that sometimes, all you can do is make do with what you have. After all, it is resistance which caused her husband to die a wrongful death, and it is resistance which took her daughter, grandson, and parents away from her. It is easy to condemn the oppressed for not fighting. It is easy to say that we give up too easily. What is hard, however, is to acknowledge that caring can take away so much of who you are.
A Family Tour (2018) was screened at the Seattle International Film Festival this year.