Review: “Everybody’s Fine” (切都好, 2016)
On Chinese New Year, Loud Green Bird
starts its second annual “China and Hong Kong Month” by taking takes a look at the latest film from Zhang Meng, the arthouse director of “The Piano in a Factory” (2010). This new release is the much more mainstream, Chinese remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s (“Cinema Paradiso”) 1990 film and the American remake starring Robert DeNiro. “Everybody’s Fine” (2016) stars Zhang Guoli (“Back to 1942”) as a retired widower who travels around China to reconnect with his four estranged adult children, played by Yao Chen (“Monster Hunt”), Shawn Dou (“Wolf Totem”), Ye Yiyun (“Love is Not Blind”) and Chen He (“Running Man”).
Like the American version, this film is a dramedy, although it is heavier on drama than comedy. A major reason for this difference is its major theme. According to Cheng Cheng Films, the Chinese remake “offers an intimate look at struggles of China’s new generation in a society transitioning from its collective past to capitalist present.”
This theme is a major reason that American viewers should not be quick to dismiss this film as “lame” or “insipid”, as Maggie Lee of Variety called it in her recent review. Although its story-line follows the American remake’s sequence and therefore contains some elements that appear anachronistic or anomalous, the screenplay (by Xiao Song) presents uniquely Chinese difficulties in relations between the current older and younger generations and their effects on Chinese families. In addition, its locations within China, which are exquisitely shot by DP Zhao Fei, provide a cross-sectional view of the Chinese cities (many of which I visited last summer) that have been affected by the vast socioeconomic and cultural changes in Chinese society. Refusing to take Hollywood’s tragically hip, pessimistic view of this type of change is not the same thing as providing “a sappy outcome of everyone and everything being hunky-dory after all,” as Lee puts it.
In the opening of “Everybody’s Fine,” recently widowed Guan Zhiguo (Zhang), a retired geologist, prepares enthusiastically for his two daughters and two sons to make their annual visit to the family home in Beijing. One after another, they call to cancel. Since they won’t come to see him, he decides to travel by train to visit each one, without first telling them. He brings with him the draft of his memoirs, a manuscript which contains stories about each one of his children.
First Guan tries to look up his photographer son Hao (Chen), who hasn’t been in contact for awhile. When he arrives at Hao’s Tianjin studio, he finds it locked and deserted. Unlike in the Hollywood remake, there is no suggestion that this son has succumbed to an addiction (which itself is a worn American trope about the life of the “suffering artist”), but his whereabouts are nevertheless a mystery that provides a significant subplot.
Guan’s next stop is Hanzhou, where eldest daughter Qing (Yao) is a successful director of commercials. Married to a successful surgeon, she hides the failure of her marriage while foisting her son on her visiting father. Guan’s romanticized version of her wedding (which he reads to her from his memoir) contrasts ironically with reality and provides a skillfully executed scene that is far from “sappy” and “hunky dory.” A further irony is that Qing’s attitude towards being a parent echoes Guan’s absentee parenting style.
Guan then moves on to Shanghai to see his son Quan (Dou), but leaves in disgust after he finds that Quan has left his day job and sold his apartment in order to launch a startup with other hipsters. Guan arrives in Macau to visit his youngest daughter, Chu (Ye), whom he and his wife groomed from childhood to be a ballerina. She’s evasive about both her dance career and her suggestive relationship with a close friend (Zhang Xinyi, “Uncle Victory”). This vignette of Chu’s life illustrates both the difficulty of being gay in China and the dark underside of the nation’s new capitalism.
As Guan’s relationships with his children begin to reveal their true nature, a secret the siblings are withholding might be the key to restoring the honesty and compassion that’s been lacking in the family. This secret will be revealed, however, only after Guan is mugged and then has a heart attack. Unlike in the De Niro version, Guan does not prevail over his attacker. The scene in question intimates the tension and upheaval behind China’s economic success, despite Lee’s assertion that director Zhang completely abandoned his previous “empathy with the lowest and most exploited rung of society” to make this film.
The reality is that Chinese filmmakers must be cognizant of what will and will not make it past China’s film board, while at the same time trying to maintain artistic integrity. Zhang’s experience with the banning of his previous film, “Uncle Victory,” likely led him to be much less edgy in this film. Nevertheless, it appears to be neither a movie designed solely to appease the powers-that-be in China, nor a mere “a jingoistic image of the nation’s economic prosperity.” Zhang delivers a subtle critique of many of China’s problems, albeit wrapped in a pretty package with a more-or-less happy ending.
“Everybody’s Fine” began a limited US theatrical run (via Cheng Cheng Films, a New York-based distribution company) on January 29, when it opened in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. There is, as yet, no information on DVD and VOD releases for this film.
RUNNING TIME: 106 Minutes
RATING: Not Rated by MPAA
IN CHINESE WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES
Disclosure: Cheng Cheng Films provided Loud Green Bird access to an online screener of and press kit for “Everybody’s Fine,” in exchange for a fair and honest review. No financial considerations were involved in this review.