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.
The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.
In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US 1988).
In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.
The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.
I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.
Love Education is a Chinese family melodrama presented as a ‘quality film’ which has made appearances at major film festivals in Asia such as Busan and Hong Kong, winning several prizes. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact outside East Asia, despite being a film by the celebrated Taiwanese singer, actor, writer and director Sylvia Chang. I was just able to catch it on its UK MUBI run via VOD. Sylvia Chang acted in Ang Lee’s Eat Man Drink Woman (Taiwan-US 1994), a similar kind of family melodrama which got a wider circulation in the West, presumably because of Lee’s American contacts. I was reminded of Lee’s film but oddly I thought Love Education was in some ways more ‘universal’ as a narrative.
‘Love Education’ seems a strange English title. Google suggests that the Mandarin title was originally ‘Love and Love’, which isn’t much clearer but makes more sense at a simple level. The story pivots around Sylvia Chang’s own character Qiu Huiying, a woman in her fifties approaching the expected retirement age for a female school teacher in an unnamed ‘second tier city’ in the PRC. The narrative begins at the bedside of Huiying’s dying mother who is having visions of joining her husband in paradise. (Short fantasy/dream sequences feature a couple of times in the film.) Huiying is desperate to hear her mother’s dying words and convinces herself that she has asked to be buried with her husband. This is problematic since the grandfather’s remains have been returned to the village he left way back in 1946. Huiying determines to go the village, exhume the remains and rebury them in the city. She sets out with her patient and probably long-suffering husband Yin Xiaoping (played by the Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) and her more wilful daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting). But when the trio arrive they discover that ‘Nanna’ (Wu Yanshu), grandfather’s first wife, has vigorously defended his remains since they were returned to the village in 1996. Despite not having seen him for 50 years, Nanna still believes he is her husband and she is determined to join him in his grave when her time comes.
Weiwei has a job with a TV company. She films the melée when Huiying tries to have the grave opened and Nanna physically defends it (with the support of the villagers). This footage will lead inevitably to media coverage – in the week which has seen ITV taking The Jeremy Kyle Show off air in the UK this seems even more tragic. As well as this central narrative, there are two or three sub-plots, the most developed of which involves Weiwei and her boyfriend, Da, a musician. Huiying and Xiaoping also have their own minor sub-plots not directly linked to the central narrative. The title could refer to the three family members and Nanna, each of which has to learn about/reflect on what ‘love’ means in their various relationships.
I think that most of the reviews have focused on the family relationships, comparing the film with an earlier Sylvia Chang film, 20:30:40 (HK-Taiwan-Japan 2004). I’ve not seen this film which deals with three women at those age points in their lives. Clearly there is a parallel in Love Education with Weiwei in her 20s, Huiying in her 50s and Nanna nearly 90. However, I’m surprised that relatively few comments have been made about the satirical possibilities of the central issue of the burial rights. The three women represent both the personal, familial issues the three women face but also the three different periods of Chinese social history. This is where I think the narrative is universal. It is about tradition v. modernity, rural v. urban and social class divisions about cultural norms. I was reminded strongly of the Cuban satire on bureaucracy by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), in which a widow cannot claim her pension because her husband’s ‘worker’s card’ has been buried with him and she needs the card to get an exhumation – cue bureaucratic meltdown. There are many other similar stories I’m sure. One that comes to mind is Guelwaar (Senegal 1992), Sembène Ousmane’s satire on religion and politics. A different issue (a Christian political activist has been buried in a Muslim cemetery) but the same sensitivities about burial rights and exhumation. In Love Education, Nanna is the pre-revolutionary peasant woman who is married at 17 in 1945 when the Civil War is replacing the war against Japan. Her husband leaves to seek work a year later and she doesn’t see him again but she remains loyal and her ideas about ‘love’ are represented by the ‘chastity arch’ built on the outskirts of her village. Huiying is the single child of born in the late 1950s/early 1960s who would be a child/young teenager during the Cultural Revolution (and would also ‘lose’ her husband Xiaoping to the PLA while she presumably trained to be a teacher. Weiwei, born in the 1990s is the ‘beneficiary’ of the PRCs rapid economic growth during her lifetime. If we accept this then we have to try to understand how the current society responds to the two older women’s claims to ‘rights’ to a burial place/resting place for the ashes of the grandfather. The city records before 1978 have been lost and with them the proof of a 1953 wedding. In the village, Nanna has no evidence that she was formally married, even though the villagers accept that she was.
I was partly pushed down the route of satire/social commentary by memories of a number of Zhang Yimou films. Perhaps I was prompted by the casting of Tian Zhuangzhuang? Just two examples: in The Story of Qui Ju (1992), Gong Li plays an unlikely peasant woman who pursues a complaint against a village chief through several tiers of Chinese bureaucracy. That film was received badly by officials but Not One Less (1999) was seen in the West as pandering to the same authorities. A 13 year-old schoolgirl Wei is left in charge of a remote village school. When a boy leaves the village she sets out to find him to fulfil her task of keeping all the children in school. In this she is eventually helped by a sympathetic TV crew who feature her story on the local news. I’m not suggesting that Sylvia Chang intended any references to the films I’ve mentioned or that she intended any kind of ideological analysis in her social commentary. Audiences will read films as they see fit. All I would say is that Love Education is worth analysis into what it might be saying. It’s interesting, for instance, that Weiwei is to some extent ‘redeemed’ by the narrative – she is whiney and brattish in the opening scenes – and she befriends Nanna in unexpected ways. She isn’t directly related to Nanna but the closeness of grandchildren and grandmothers is again a universal phenomenon. But how do we read it here.
Overall, I thought all the performances were very good – Xiaoping and Da as characters are more involved in the narrative than my outline might have suggested. The film is beautifully photographed by Mark Lee Ping-bin, well-known for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and other auteur directors. The photography is matched by the editing of Matthieu Laclau who has worked on the last three Jia Zhang-khe films. The music score, which I enjoyed very much, is by Huang Yun-Ling.