So Long, My Son was one of the ‘must see’ films of 2019 and I’m so glad I was able to catch it before it disappeared from cinemas. The last section of the film broke me completely as the long and complex melodrama narrative moved into its final resolution. This is a narrative of 185 minutes that at times moves at a stately pace but it gripped me throughout. At a time when the ‘long-form narrative’ is lauded on TV and streaming it’s important to state that this kind of experience is only possible on a big screen. I was lucky to see it at the Duke’s Cinema in Lancaster.
The current cinema ecology in China is such that though domestic titles have thrashed Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, the numbers of high profile Chinese specialised films – those likely to succeed on the international arthouse circuit – appear to have been squeezed. So Long, My Son is an exception, winning acting prizes for its leads at Berlin and recognised at many other festivals. Director and co-writer Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the so-called Sixth Generation directors, born in 1966 and graduating from Beijing Film Academy in 1989. He grew up in South West China during the Cultural Revolution and his best known and most successful films have been inspired by his own experience and those of similar families in which the parents’ lives were disrupted in the 1960s and 1970s. After his breakthrough feature Beijing Bicycle (China-Taiwan-France 2001), he made a loose trilogy of films exploring the consequences of sending Eastern families to the South West: Shanghai Dreams (2004), 11 Flowers (China-France 2011) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I feel lucky to have seen all four titles in the UK, although only the first two got a general release. It’s important to stress Wang’s background in placing So Long, My Son into context. This new title is said to be the first of a new trilogy of ‘Homeland’ films in which Wang explores what happened to families in the period following the end of the Cultural Revolution from 1978 through the ‘Four Modernisations’ under Deng Xiaoping and onwards through the huge changes in Chinese social history up to the current period of ‘consumer-led communism’ (or however you may wish to describe it). With the focus on families it isn’t surprising that the one child per family policy is central to the narrative.
(This description does contain a spoiler. It’s really impossible to offer a synopsis without it.)
This is the story of two closely connected families who live ‘cheek by jowl’ in a factory housing block on the outskirts of Beijing in the 1980s. Yaojun is a skilled fitter and his wife Liyun is a factory inspector of various processes. Their neighbours are Yingming who works in accounts and his wife Haiyan, the factory’s leader on family planning and the implementation of the one-child policy. Yingming’s younger sister Moli at one point becomes Yaojun’s apprentice fitter but later moves into much better paid jobs. There is also another couple, Xinjian and Meiyu – but I couldn’t work out if they were related in any way to the two central families. The intertwined relationships and what happens to them over nearly 40 years pivot around an incident in the 1980s. Xingxing and Hao, the schoolboy sons of the two central families are playing by the local reservoir on their way home from school. Xingxing, the son of Yaojun and Liyun is drowned. The parents are devastated and eventually they move south to the coast of Fujian Province where they are isolated as Mandarin speakers with their neighbours using other Chinese dialects. (Others from the factory move to Hainan, further south). They try to adopt a child. They have limited contact with their old workmates but in the final section of the narrative they return to Beijing and various issues are resolved, some in perhaps surprising ways (but conventionally for a family melodrama?).
What might be a relatively straightforward linear narrative is presented through a series of flashbacks. Movement backwards and forwards through the history of the families is not signalled by captions giving places and times. The only time when the year, ‘1986’, is mentioned is when a factory announcement is made. The film begins with the boys at the reservoir arguing about whether they should play in the water – but this isn’t the beginning of the story and the consequences of their decision are not shown until later. The storytelling is challenging. Apart from the ageing of the adult actors, the timeline of events is difficult to follow and I wonder how younger audiences with little knowledge of Chinese society and politics in the 1980s will piece the events together. You do need to understand the ‘one-child policy’ which was instituted in 1979 and not officially ended until 2015. The policy was rigorously enforced via contraception and abortion and fines or rewards for sticking to the policy. It is said that up to 400 million births were prevented but the social cost was very high. The other major policy shift was towards a consumer-led economy and the forced redundancy and movement of displaced workers and their families.
The script was co-written by Wang and Ah Mei (best known for working on Zhang Yimou’s Under The Hawthorn Tree, 2010) and it won the script prize at the Chinese Golden Rooster Awards. The cinematography by Kim Hyunseok from South Korea is terrific, beautifully-composed shots with great depth are hand-held and the effect is mesmerising especially in the opening shot of the reservoir with the boys in the foreground. I must also mention the use of songs, both recorded and sung by the factory workers. Decadent Western pop music (Boney M!) plus his hairstyle and flares are enough to see Xinjian arrested for immoral behaviour. A Chinese song using the tune of Auld Lang Syne is repeated at various points in community celebrations. The Chinese title of the film seems to refer to the song’s lyrics – ‘Dijiutianchang’ translates roughly as ‘enduring, eternal (of friendship or hate)’ which is actually a better title for the film. Equally important, the song reminds Yaojun and Liyun of the time when they were first together in the late 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was ending.
Perhaps because the narrative events needed time to be sorted out and meanings digested, I was never bothered by the slow pace, in fact I was riveted to the screen. My only distraction was provided by my tears in the final section. We tend to think about China in terms of state initiatives and mass movements but the best Chinese films tell their stories through the lives of ordinary people. The film is still around in some cinemas. In West Yorkshire it is showing at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on January 12. Don’t miss it if you have the chance to go.