Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene, released to a mostly rapturous reception in 1990 but a bit forgotten nowadays, had already been remade and transposed from Italy to the United States in Kirk Jones’s Everybody’s Fine (2009), and now comes the Chinese remake. But rather than denote a lack of originality, this new version speaks to the universality and strength of the concept: take a revered older actor (here Zhang Guoli taking over from Marcello Mastroianni and Robert De Niro) as a former absentee father who’s now a widower leaving alone in the family house, his four children having scattered across the country and all supposedly thriving in their professional and private lives. When they all cancel their visit for a planned family reunion, the father decides to pack up and go visit each one of them.
This allows both for a travelogue of the country and a study of its social issues and generational challenges, sampled in each daughter or son. The elder daughter (Yao Chen) is an accomplished designer with a failed mariage, the second-born (Shaw Dou) has dropped his career as a teacher and sold his flat to be an entrepreneur, the second daughter (Ye Yiyun) is a lesbian who didn’t become a successful ballerina as she hoped to but instead entertains in a restaurant, and the youngest son (Chen He) is a struggling artist who’s gone missing in Tibet after being caught in an avalanche. Crucially, all of them have been hiding their failings and unconventional choices from their father and for a while they all try to maintain a facade of normalcy and success to him.
Zhang Meng’s film is closer to the bittersweet, down-to-earth dramedy of the American version than to the surrealistic stylings and salty irony of Italian original. Zhang’s metaphors are less striking but also less forced than Tornatore’s: for instance a fat, overgrown 12-year old encountered in a train represents China’s recklessly booming economy, but rather than draw attention of the symbol itself, the director focuses on the warmth and everyday humanity of the scene itself. It’s a gentler, less realistic film altogether: it is concerned with the difficult choices and inevitable disillusions of life, and every one of its geographical locations comes with a sociological subtext that will elude most outside of China, but at the same time it takes place in a fairly harmless, sanitized version of Chinese society: poverty is nowhere to be seen, and skies are perfectly blue.
Thus it works more a fable than an actual, real-life story, aided by Roc Chen’s moving score and Zhao Fei’s beautiful cinematography. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a film being demonstrative, especially when it doesn’t hammer you over the head with symbolism. And Everybody’s Fine benefits from a solid anchor in Zhang Guoli’s subtlety and humanity, surrounded with a solid supporting cast and a few choice cameos, from Jia Zhangke as a lewd gangster to a luminous Vivian Wu in the role already essayed by Michelle Morgan then Melissa Leo: a woman the father meets out of nowhere, with whom he establishes a fleeting but poignant connection. “Fleeting but poignant” does encapsulate this film well.
Long Story Short: This remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene is a gentler, less striking but also less forced film, a visually pleasing fable anchored in a poignant performance by Zhang Guoli. ***