The Personal is Political: Filmmaker Ying Liang Reflects on His Exile from China

Even though he’s a married father in his early 40s, director Ying Liang looks like a student. When he stealthily enters a room in the Hong Kong Arts Centre, it’s easy to mistake him for novice, with his comfortably scruffy denim and bright pink backpack, a holdover from the Busan International Film Festival. Soft spoken, with movie star cheekbones, Ying settles in for an initially cautious, but eventually verbose chat about life in exile. The Shanghai native is a resident of Hong Kong but he hasn’t been home in a while. “I can’t,” he says succinctly. “For six years now.”

Ying is understandably guarded, not paranoid, but meticulous with words he chooses carefully before he speaks. He prefers to express himself in Putonghua, even though he has little to no trouble understanding English. Get him on a roll talking about a film or a particularly memorable even or a favourite filmmaker (Jia Zhangke) and he’ll forget himself and break into English anyway. Ying is cautious, but he has plenty to say.

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Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), a filmmaker whose work has separated her from her family in the latest by Ying Liang – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

Born and raised in Shanghai, Ying graduated from Chongqing Film Academy and Beijing Normal University. “I started making films as a hobby,” he says. “I had no idea I’d end up here now. 20 years ago there were not a lot of job opportunities in China, so I took the independent film route back then.” After graduating he worked in television, as an assistant director and in continuity. “But I found it too commercial for me, and it didn’t give me a lot of room to be creative.”

Initially inspired by the likes of Ning Hao (No Man’s Land) and later Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin) Ying’s first success was the short film The Missing House in 2004, which won an IFVA award in Hong Kong. That film, about a young prisoner who gets a day pass for Chinese New Year only to find his home replaced by a luxury hotel development, set displacement as a theme for Ying’s work going forward. “Watching the other films and talking with other directors [at IFVA] was encouraging, not just because of the award but for the ability of Hong Kong to be so capitalistic but also so independent in its filmmaking. So I went back to China and decided to make my first feature with a digital camera for RMB30,000.”

That film was Taking Father Home, which followed a 17-year-old country boy to the city as he searched for the father that abandoned him and his mother. Accolades then came in for The Other Half in 2006 and Good Cats in 2008, but it was his 2012 feature When Night Falls that changed Ying’s life.

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Nai An in When Night Falls, the 2012 film that put director Ying Liang on the road to exile – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

In 2008, Yang Jia stabbed six Shanghai police and inspired rare public criticism of the justice process in China from citizens. Three years later, Ying was working as a lecturer at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and on a break made a film about Yang, his mother’s judicial appeals and police corruption. It was in post-production Ying was made aware the film was getting the wrong kind of attention. “When I was editing I got word that the authorities were watching,” he says. “Initially I ignored it and just went about my business. Then I went to Jeonju and realised it was more serious than that.” The film screened at the Jeonju International Film Festival in Korea despite Beijing’s attempts to stop it. It later won an award at Locarno. Ying came back to Hong Kong and he hasn’t left since.

“When I first realised I couldn’t go back it was a complicated feeling, but right away I felt fear,” he says. “Every authority seemed threatening and I felt very unsafe. They approached my family back in Shanghai while I was working at the APA, and then I felt like I was being followed on the streets. I didn’t trust anyone. I grew up in China so I understood what I should be afraid of.” Ying had a network of friends ready to help out with the legalities and logistics of staying in Hong Kong, the choice Ying made despite knowing it would cost him his family in Shanghai. “That made me question my identity,” he says. “Am I a ‘real’ Chinese? But I’m a father now, and I want to understand what independence means for my son — on a personal level and as a filmmaker.” Ying pauses, reflecting again. “But the distance between me and China is getting wider and wider. It’s only been seven years but I don’t feel as connected, and it’s a strange, complex feeling too.”

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Nai An as Chen Xiaolin, a woman disconnected from her family – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

Which brings him to A Family Tour. About as autobiographical as a film can possibly be, Tour follows a young filmmaker, Yang Shu (Gong Zhen in a gorgeously nuanced performance), who has incurred the wrath of the central government and is forced to live in exile in Hong Kong. The only way for her to see her ill mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An, star of When Night Falls), and for Chen to meet the grandson she only knows via Skype, is to tag along behind Chen’s closely monitored group tour through Kaohsiung while she’s in the city for a film festival. A lot of events in the film — Yang discovers some of her investors have gone missing, the family watches an artist’s public apology on TV — were inspired by under-the-radar incidents that have happened across the region, including the saga of the Causeway Bay booksellers. But just as many were taken from Ying’s own life. His wife had to follow a similar tour to see her parents, and the recorded conversation with police Chen give Yang was actually a pen and paper recollection from Ying’s family.

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“I wanted to communicate with my child” Ying Liang (2018) – Photo by William Furniss

But as much as A Family Tour is a statement, it’s also a simple family drama, about a mother and daughter separated by distance and time, trying to reconnect, and an examination of identity. It’s those additional themes that make the film accessible to all audiences — it’s already hit the festival circuit at Locarno, Busan and New York — though Ying pushes back on that reading to a degree. “I felt my focus was relationships, so I wouldn’t want it to be just a family drama,” he says. “You can’t separate the two halves; one thing leads to the other. It’s because of her filmmaking that this family is apart, and because of the family being separated the filmmaker is inspired creatively. It’s been said politics is a personal choice. They can’t exist without each other.”

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Grandmother (Nai An) and grandson (Tham Xin Yue) meet and reconnect in Taiwan – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

None of A Family Tour’s four funders — from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore — is Chinese, so a release in the Mainland would have been unlikely regardless of the subject matter. Ying would love Chinese audiences to see it, but he has higher, more personal hopes for it. “First and foremost I wanted to communicate with my child,” he says. “Growing up in China I felt like children had difficulty communicating with their parents and families; my grandparents didn’t really communicate with my parents. The belief was that if older generations told their stories to younger ones it would create instability. So I really wanted this to be a way to open a conversation with my son.”

While he waits for his son to get old enough to understand what the film is about, Ying is finishing off more than one script, but his next film will also deal with exile and displacement, just not his own. Which brings up the question of why he is here and not in Taiwan, and how secure he feels, artistically, in Hong Kong. Ying is sanguine on the subject, with a healthy dose of pragmatic. “A lot of people helped me out when in needed it and so I feel a lot of connection to Hong Kong,” he finishes. “And whether you’re free to speak in Hong Kong now is a somewhat subjective statement. But people are still finding ways to express themselves. I’ll do what I can because I’m here for as long as I can be. Right now it’s home.”

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A seemingly normal family sightseeing in Kaohsiung in A Family Tour – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

A Family Tour screens at the 2019 Hong Kong Independent Film Festival.

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