The 71st Locarno (Film) Festival was Carlo Chatrian’s last as artistic director, and it offered an unusually strong Concorso internazionale (International Competition section). The Concorso internazionale saw, among other strong contenders, the world premiere of Ying Liang’s A Family Tour. Ying Liang’s last feature-length work, the 2012 Wo hai you hua yao shuo (When Night Falls), was also in competition at Locarno and went on to win both the director’s (third-place) prize as well as an acting prize: Nai An won best actress for her portrayal of a grieving mother investigating the execution of her son by Chinese authorities after he committed a gruesome, multiple murder at a Shanghai police station.
The attention garnered by When Night Falls and its prizes galvinised not only international attention for Ying Liang – The New Yorker’s Richard Brody subsequently called him one of the world’s best young directors 1 – but also led to significant problems with Chinese authorities. After the making of When Night Falls and its topic became known, his parents were pressured to encourage him to cease his work on the film. When he refused, he was informed that he should not return to his hometown of Shanghai, but instead remain in Hong Kong on his one-year teaching contract. He has not returned to Shanghai (or visited his parents there) since that summer of 2012.
These dramatic events led to something of a break in Ying Liang’s oeuvre, but recent developments in Hong Kong have inspired him to work again. Over the last few years, he has produced two short films, one a rehearsal (from a different perspective) for A Family Tour. A Family Tour follows a Chinese film director, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), and her husband, Cheung Ka-Ming (Peter Teo), from Hong Kong, where they have been living in semi-exile, to Taiwan. She has been invited to a Taiwanese film festival to screen the film that caused her political problems. They also use the trip to meet Yang Shu’s mother, Chen Xiaolin (Nai An), who is allowed to travel to Taiwan as part of a mainland Chinese tour group. The eponymous family tour, then, affords Chen Xiaolin her first opportunity to meet her grandson, Yue-Yue (Tham Xin Yue). The encounters between mother and her daughter’s family are geared to appear accidental, so as not to arouse political suspicions or cause political problems for Chen Xiaolin.
Singled out by many critics as a highlight of this year’s strong competition, A Family Tour forms a fascinating duet with When Night Falls. A Family Tour not only invokes the earlier work, but investigates its personal, professional and political fall-out – all while conveying the perplexed melancholy of exile and the passing of time at a remove from both home and relatives. When Nights Falls and A Family Tour offer intriguing snapshots of particular historical and political moments that, seen side by side, take the measure of a crucial period in Chinese history. When Night Falls was written and shot in mainland China, where Ying Liang was born and raised, but A Family Tour was shot in Hong Kong and then primarily in Taiwan, with the film a Taiwanese-Singaporean-Malay coproduction. These multifaceted geographies are telling.
In the interview below, Ying Liang describes his project’s engagement with this complex personal history as well as with this very moment in Chinese history. Most of the interview was carried out over two meetings in Locarno, with a few questions then specified via email afterward.
Congratulations on the premiere of your film. One of the things I find fascinating about the new film A Family Tour is that it combines two cinematic tropes in highly original ways. First, there is a trip undertaken by a family that helps constitute that family anew. But, second and quite differently, there is a certain haunting of this trip – not only by past events, but even by a past film.
Can you talk about that haunting and explain the relation between the films?
Yes, you are referring to how A Family Tour is based on a trip by the protagonist Yang Shu to Taiwan because her last film, made a number of years before, is invited to a festival. That film has created various problems for her and is based on my own experience with my own 2012 film When Night Falls.
When Night Falls derives from a true case, from Shanghai, around ten years ago. 2A young man went to a police station and killed six people there – and yet no one really heard about it. There were only very general reports about it. And then abruptly this young man was dead, having been sentenced to death by the legal authorities – so he was tried and executed within several months of his crime. Probably not coincidentally, for most of those few months between his sentencing and his execution, his mother was also missing. He had been arrested, and she was abruptly sent to hospital for a very long time. After his mother was finally released from hospital, she went back to her home in Beijing, but, in less than three days after that, her son was dead – the television news reported that he had been executed.
I followed the case, because artists like Ai Weiwei and some human rights lawyers were reporting on it and updating about it on their blogs – back then, everyone was using blogs, not other social media. Two years after that, Ai Weiwei made a documentary about the case – in fact, he made two documentaries on the topic, with the latter one an interview with the young man’s mother.
In 2012 I started writing something about it and ended up writing a script for a short film from the point of view of the mother – the mother who had come back from Shanghai to Beijing and then learned almost immediately her son had been executed. It was a fast shoot. My project, wisely or not, was all based on this true case and used unchanged names. After the film became known to the authorities, I was told I could not come back to mainland China, that I should just stay in Hong Kong where I had only a one-year teaching contract.
What about the family tour/trip form in the film?
This part of the film is based on real events in my personal life – my parents are in Shanghai and have steered clear of any political controversy as much as they can, not least because my father spent time in jail for ambiguous reasons. In fact, they do not really know about this new film – I have not even told them about it for their own safety.
So, the story in the film is actually based on an experience with my in-laws. My wife’s parents, who live in mainland China, came to Taiwan to see our son, who is the same age as the boy, more or less, in the film. We met them in Taiwan in a very similar situation to the film.
I thought it is interesting that film festivals play such a big role in the film. Film festivals have played a considerable role in the trajectory of your career, no?
Yes, it is true. In fact, When Night Falls started as a festival commission and then won the director’s prize here in Locarno. The Jeonju city government runs a festival in South Korea, and every year, they pick a number of projects to develop: I was awarded 2,500 Euro to produce When Night Falls. So, with that modest budget, I shoot it very quickly and used many non-professional actors.
The first screening was therefore in South Korea around the end of April 2012. Before the screening the police visited my family in Shanghai, as well as my wife’s family, and the police told them to pressure me to stop making the film about the execution of the young man and the experiences of his mother. This was when I was still editing the film in Hong Kong, where I was teaching at the time. I was living in Hong Kong on that one-year teaching contract, a kind of artist residency with teaching. It was in the middle of that year, between the semesters, that I had gone back to shoot the film in Shanghai. In any case, I refused to stop working on it.
The new project actually had a short film about a related topic come before. Can you describe the genesis of the project and its relationship to that short film (entitled I Have Nothing To Say, 2017)? Actually, were there two short films? And these were the first films you made since When Night Falls?
It is a whole, single project, actually, with both A Family Tour and the short film I Have Nothing to Say as part of it. I Have Nothing to Say and the feature A Family Tour tell the same story. The short film came first, of course, and tells it from the mother’s point of view. The feature’s narrative voice arises from all four people in the family, especially the three adults. They each have more or less an equal voice in terms of proportion.
In this way, the feature has a polyphonic structure, and all three generations have their voices. The film shows the changes in each of their psychologies and their perspectives on their situations. The scope of the feature allows me to look at my life in the past five years in an overall manner. It also allows me to understand it and reflect on it comprehensively. This is the advantage of the feature. It is also in colour and more realistic in general. More of the conflicts between the characters, and the inner conflicts within each of them, can be shown in multiple layers.
This project happened very fast. The idea suddenly occurred to me in August 2016, and the shoot was finished in July 2017, with production of a longer and shorter version at the same time. When I first saw the application for short film projects for the Kaosiung Film Festival, I noticed the requirement for the main part of the story to take place in Kaosiung; I was reminded of our trip to Kaosiung, which is much like the one in the film now. I finished writing the treatment very quickly. Some friends read it and suggested that I should make a feature of it as well. I agreed with that view, so I wrote the treatment of the feature, and meanwhile looked for a producer for it.
By the time we started the shoot, we had done eleven drafts of the script of the feature and eight of the short. There were three script writers including me. This kind of film has no commercial value, so it was difficult to find funding.
In A Family Tour, much of the plot is based on your own experiences, but the director in it is the woman filmmaker Yang Shu (Gong Zhe). Why did you change the main character to a female film director?
I do not like it when an audience, after watching the film, focuses on something from my personal past. I think something similar happened to many different artists – to artists, to directors – for example, after 1989. I did not want the film to be totally about me – it should not just be my story.
Another reason, I think, is that we had three writers on the film: myself, my wife Peng Shan, and the Hong Kong novelist and screenwriter Chai Wan. For my wife and myself, we’re just too close to the story, and we would have likely been too emotional about it since it concerns our own son and parents. Chai Wan can explain it and work it out differently because he can keep distance and observe things as they might work in the film.
In the film, recent changes in the political situation come up a number of times. Over the past five or six years, the time since When Night Falls, how has the political situation changed in Hong Kong and China?
So much has happened – and the film emphasises and works with that. Hong Kong has endured so many changes very fast: politics, education, media, etc. For example, I’ve now lost my job teaching film, even though my friends still support me. In fact, lots of people are having problems: teachers, journalists, artists, etc. We are facing a government with an extremely driven agenda and highly centralised power.
After the Occupy protest movement in Hong Kong in 2013 and 2014, many people left for the US, Canada, Taiwan, or Australia. Our co-writer on the screenplay, Chai Wan, has, in fact, moved to Taiwan. Chai Wan initially hesitated to have his named attached to A Family Tour at all. A bit older than we are, Chai Wan still had a contract at the film school and wanted to finish his teaching career there. But at the last minute he said go ahead and use my name, “I’m going to move anyway,” and he has left Hong Kong for Taiwan.
We basically think that there’s little we can do about the situation, that things are changing too fast.
For example, in A Family Tour, a key scene relating to this topic was the scene when Yang Shu sees on a television the official confession of someone who declares China as his homeland, etc. It was based on a Taiwanese actor who was appearing in a Taiwanese-Chinese coproduction. 3Some posts appeared, apparently from this actor, about Taiwanese independence, but it was not actually clear if they were really posted by her. Even though people are not sure who posted them, the actor still had to go through this and even declare that China is her homeland and Taiwan her hometown within China, etc., reiterating the One China policy.
Were you worried about the fall-out from making such a film? It has been covered now extensively in the international press. In fact, many of the summaries of the Locarno festival’s competition section have cited A Family Tour as a highlight of this year’s strong competition.
To me, these are not particularly political films. This film is about my life – even with When Night Falls, it is about someone’s life, what happened for real in their lives. In Taking Father Home (2005), for me it is just a moving story about a son from the country searching for his father in the city. I picked out a story from our lives, a family tour, and thought it might touch other people as well. So, it is not particularly political – maybe the situation, the context, is political, but the point for me is the relationships between the characters.
Perhaps the reason is my growing up – I always followed socially critical cases, and some such cases even happened in my family and around my family. So such people are close to me – to me, it is a general condition and should not be categorised solely as political.
It seems to me that it is very simple. I want to tell a story – after all, the plot is simply the result of my own life, so I don’t think about it so much in a political way. For example, in the film, the husband says to his wife in a tourist restaurant that he might move farther from China, given everything that has happened. Maybe one day I won’t be able to return, maybe I’ll arrive at the airport in Hong Kong, and I just won’t be allowed back in. But I cannot worry about that all the time. An artist has her or his own work to engage in: if one worries too much, one just wouldn’t be able to work.
How did you think about the risks involved before you undertook the making of When Night Falls?
Well, between 1949, when the Communist revolution occurred, and 1966, the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, it was very difficult to make a film about any political topics, as it could easily anger the government and lead to professional and personal consequences.
Since then, there have been a couple of films that have run into serious problems because of their politics, and certainly I thought about those cases. Tian Zhuangzhuang was a classmate of Zhang Yimou, thus another fifth-generation film director. His Blue Kite [Lan feng zheng, 1993] follows a family from 1949 until before 1976, when the Cultural Revolution ended.
The government was very unhappy with Tian Zhuangzhuang, not least because he belonged to the Beijing film studios, with his dad even an official there and his mother a famous film actress. His work was banned for years – if the government bans a filmmaker’s work, a director really could not shoot anything at that point, as the government had to supply the equipment and resources for crew, cast, etc.
Another case about which I was thinking was that of Lou Ye and his Summer Palace [Yihe yuan]. Summer Palace is about a couple played against the background of the protests in 1989, even though the film was made in 2006. For this, he received a five-year ban. The producer of that film was actually Nai An, who acts in my films: she played the forcibly hospitalised mother in When Night Falls and won the 2012 acting award at Locarno for that work. In A Family Tour, she plays Chen Xiaolin, the mother of the film director Yang Shu who travels to Taiwan to meet her grandson for the first time.
But digital video has changed these issues in a lot of ways. Lou Ye actually continued to work in an underground way. So, as I considered this with When Night Falls, I thought if they do ban my work, I do not need official resources – I could still use digital video even if they give me a ban. On the other hand, part of me thought I was never really a filmmaker, at least not a proficient filmmaker, because I have shot films on digital with a mini-crew. But, of course, now I think that was a mistaken idea about such small-scale filmmaking and filmmakers!
A Family Tour references some financers of the director Yang Shu’s films who run into trouble with authorities. What was the financing of A Family Tour?
We struggled for nine months, until early May 2017, before we found enough money to almost cover the shooting, excluding the post-production, and paying a reliable production team in Taiwan. The money has come from a variety of sources including a Taiwanese public television channel. Some has come from film companies in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan, some from a German foundation, and also from an advance related to the distribution. There are also private investments, and I borrowed some from my friends. Independent filmmaking often works like this. Exactly because this is an independent film, as long as the film is made, the harsh environment does not affect creativity too much.
In the end, however, I had a much bigger budget with A Family Tour than with any previous films. The budget ended up around 200,000 Euro, which is very large for me, although still on the smaller side for many Taiwanese productions – in Taiwan, even young directors often have budgets of 700,000 Euros for more mainstream productions. I don’t have much to complain about.
The taxi drivers in the film were often very funny and offered a whole other dimension. Of course, the audience at the world premiere at Locarno laughed out loud when one of the taxi drivers complains to Yang Shu about her films’ many long-takes. But they also commented on the political situation.
The film’s story is not only sad, but also absurd, humorous and complex. I really don’t want to tell a story that unfolds entirely in sadness. Because my understanding of life and my life are simply not like this, unfolding in total sadness. The taxi drivers provide this kind of context and content of local situation of Taiwan, just like tour group provide these kind of context and content of China.
How did the casting work for the film?
I started casting in October 2016, and conducted six workshop series with the actors between March and June 2017. Each series lasted for three to five days. At that point, we did not have enough money to finish the film, but I considered working with the cast, including on the script, very much the core of the creative process. Since the plan was to start the shoot in June, no delay could be justified. I simply had to put aside my worries about the budget.
Nai An and Gong Zhe, who play the mother and the daughter, respectively, are from Beijing. Pete who plays the husband and the little boy who plays the son are from Malaysia. I live in Hong Kong. The film was shot with a local production team in Taiwan. I cannot at this point work in China, and the costs in Hong Kong and Taiwan are very high. So, I conducted the workshops with the actors in Malaysia. We prepared the actors by watching films, reading various material, rehearsing, discussing things and simply hanging out.
Since the work of the protagonists Yang Shu and her husband is related to underground and semi-underground independent Chinese films, the actors’ understanding of modern and contemporary Chinese history and of independent films becomes very important. Our rehearsals were not so much a matter of acting out the scripted scenes, but a series of discussions between myself and the cast on questions such as: in other situations (hypothetical and not in the script) how would the characters act? For example, what did they do in a certain situation five years prior to the story of the script? What will they do in another situation ten years after the story in the script? Where were they and what did they do during the Sichuan Earthquake? After our discussions, they would act out those “other situations”. Then we would discuss again and make adjustments. I also revised the script as we rehearsed. They are very fine actors, and we accumulated a lot in the four months of preparation. All that was used in the actual shoot effectively. Such preparation has nurtured the inner connections among the actors as family members in the story, and that was my minimum requirement of their performance.
Given the involvement and support of Taiwanese television, will it play television?
We will have a theatrical release after Taiwan’s Golden Horse awards in the fall. The Golden Horse awards are like the Taiwanese Oscars, and they are supposed to be more and more supportive of independent cinema, so we are hoping to get some attention there and then have the film in theatres in Taiwan, Singapore, and even Hong Kong. First, it will be in the New York Film Festival, to which I shall be travelling.
What are the next projects you are working on?
I have three projects that I am working on. One is about a bigger family, how their life changed over the course of the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong, how the different generations experienced those events, etc. I am working on that with Chai Wan – we have been working on it for a long time, as we started writing on it in 2015. In fact, he is also writing a novel about the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong. The Occupy Movement and the Umbrella Movement are very close – lots of people are still thinking and discussing politics, even if the situation is very difficult. Chai Wan and I both went to many protests, but it’s very difficult to make a film out of it. We shall see.
- Richard Brody, “For Ying Liang”, accessed 7 September 2018. ↩
- The case was one that received international attention, partially for its unusual level of violence and partially because of the sympathy offered by the public for the self-professed perpetrator, Yang Jia. The timeline seems to be early July 2008, Yang Jia killed six police officers by stabbing; end of August/early September he is tried quickly and largely in secret and sentenced to death; he was executed in November 2008. ↩
- Ying Liang later specified that he meant the singer-actor Zhou Ziyu. ↩