In Ying Liang’s Taking Father Home, the titular patriarch refers both to the literal father of Xu Yun—the young boy at the center of the film, who must travel into the city to find his six-years-absent paterfamilias—and to China itself, the “fatherland” which, in Ying’s view, has lost its way in a rush to modernization. When Xu Yun reaches the city, he finds it little more than a run-down slum, where pickpockets and thieves abound, dirt coats the air, and the airwaves are clogged with news reports about new buildings and dams and, by the film’s end, an impending flood. It’s a bracing view of the dangers of industrial progress, but it is a vision badly hampered by Ying’s jaundiced view of humanity, which at times reaches Paul Haggis-like levels of absurd hysteria. There’s little insight to be found in Ying’s presentation of even seemingly helpful citizens as fundamentally cruel and animalistic, and any commentary on the dehumanizing effects of Chinese society is lost amid shrill scenes like the one in which Xu Yun is accosted for no apparent reason by a group of motorcycle-riding hoodlums.
The Italian neorealists knew that works of political humanism need a sympathetic protagonist around whom to center their theses, as does Kelly Reichardt, whose great Wendy and Lucy accomplishes much of what Ying is attempting with significantly more grace and power. Ying, working with a miniscule budget and resoundingly nonprofessional actors, can forge no such connection with his protagonist, whose awkward blankness and lack of affect borders on autism. All that’s left to focus on is the film’s hideous, cheap DV aesthetic, which may be a necessary evil for a first-time filmmaker working in China but doesn’t make the film’s bland, blotchy visuals any more pleasant to look at.