For his debut feature, Voyage en Chine, Zoltan Mayer has chosen the moving story of a mother coming to terms with the death of her estranged son which takes her far from the mundanity of life in the French suburbs to the Sichuan region of central China. With a magnificent Yolande Moreau in the central role, Mayer slowly lays bear the hidden emotions of this middle-aged woman who struggles to cope with the loss of her child as well as the guilt of abandoning her adult son. At first Liliane’s grief is as heavy as the oversized red coat she wears as she shuffles on and off trains and buses on her own journey of self-discovery. But gradually, the immense sadness begins to lessen and she emerges from the silence to reconnect with her son through the people who loved and respected him. Mayer directs with a subtelty and perception which elevates this simple story onto a majestic level.
Liliane and her husband Richard (Andre Wilms) no longer have much of a marriage and spend silent evenings eating dinner in front of the TV. A late night telephone call reveals their son Christophe has been killed in Sichuan and the body has to be repatriated to France. Although broken by the news of Christophe’s death, Liliane tries to organise the paperwork to bring her son home. But the bureaucracy is overwhelming and without telling her husbands she sets off to China to bring the body back herself. It’s a daunting task for Liliane who is only able to communicate through schoolgirl English, but eventually she finds herself in the small village Christophe had made his home. Through her encounters with the other villagers, including the beautiful Danjie (Qu Jing Jing) Christophe’s girlfriend, she is able to build up a picture of the man her son had become.
Mayer’s background as a photographer and documentary maker are in evidence with the very personal angle of Liliane’s voyage. There’s a raw quality to the film which avoids cliché and sets about deftly drawing together the various stands of Liliane’s journey. Mayer wisely avoids using a voice over to express Liliane’s innermost thoughts, instead there are the touching letters to her son which she writes while travelling which reveal the depths of her loss. She is filled with regret but there is not a shred of self pity. It’s as if she accepts the physical discomfort she experiences on the journey as part of the punishment for her failings as a mother. None of this would be apparent without an actor as talented as Moreau in the lead role. She is big and stands out physically against the local actors. It’s difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between Liliane with her shock of unruly grey haïr and rolling gait and the small-boned, dark haired Sichuan villagers The sparse, stilted dialogue and awkward silences add to the intensity of her experience and Mayer takes his time in letting the story gently unfold. Characters are introduced one at a time and his skill is in fitting them ltogether to form a coherent whole.
Voyage en Chine is as far from a travelogue as it’s possible to get and the images Mayer has created stay in the mind long after the final credits have rolled.