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.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first feature by writer-director Kim Bora. Like the other recent South Korean film by a woman, The House of Us by Yoon Ga-eun, which I saw at the London Film Festival, House of Hummingbird is a potential family melodrama that evolves more into the story of a young teenage girl. Nick saw the film at the London Fest and was a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised.
Eun-hee, the central character is an eight grader in middle school which makes her around 14 in the Korean system I think (and therefore three years older than the girl in House of Us). She isn’t enjoying school and her slightly older siblings, both still at school, are not very friendly towards her. Her father runs a food shop specialising in rice products and works long hours and her mother seems rather distracted when not preparing food for the family. The year is 1994 and Eun-hee ignores the first two major events of the year – the Northern leader Kim Il-sung dies and South Korea play in the World Cup in the US. This is in contrast to the third major event which affects her very badly – but more of that later.
The film is slow-paced and perhaps over-long (138 minutes) for a narrative with relatively little narrative incident. But this does mean that we get to know Eun-hee in some depth. During the two semesters of her school year she has her first boyfriend, two separate relationships with girls in her class/year and a medical issue. As in most ‘real lives’ none of these three interactions come to much but Eun-hee does learn something about each of them and about herself. Certainly she gets more from meeting her friends than she gets from the members of her family. The context of a rapidly industrialising Korean society, now over the politically fraught times of the 1980s, is sketched in carefully. The building boom leads to a protest near her home by residents who refuse to move for re-development. At school the pressure for education attainment is being ratcheted up. Eun-hee’s terrifying teacher has the class chanting about going to university and not visiting karaoke bars. It reminded me of the worst excesses of our local girls’ school which forbade girls going out in the evening. Ironically, it is one of the elements of this new high pressure educational culture that offers Eun-hee hope of something more fulfilling.
Eun-hee attends an after school Chinese ‘cramming class’ with her friend. One day the usual teacher is replaced by a woman in her early thirties, a mature student at the university. This is Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok) who seems both approachable and laid-back – calm and almost zen-like. Eun-hee is smitten. Yong-ji provides support when it is needed, making tea and offering advice. Eun-hee brightens considerably and in that way that perspectives change so quickly at 14, she sees herself becoming a cartoonist (or rather a graphic artist). Yong-ji is an attractive character but she also carries a sense of fragility and I was worried immediately that something might happen to her – and that’s where the third news incident comes in.
Reading through various reviews, the film receives praise for its clear-eyed view of life for a young girl in Seoul in 1994. But the descriptions vary. For some Eun-hee’s life is bleak and the family is dysfunctional. There are indeed some family tragedies and two incidents that suggest that Eun-hee is not being cared for or supported as she should be. There is domestic violence and the medical condition she develops is handled badly by the family. But I’m not sure how we are meant to read these incidents. Are they a critique of 1990s Korean society? Father appears to be over-worked and the few occasions when the family help out in the shop seem like genuine moments of co-operation. Perhaps the narrative is simply giving us Eun-hee’s perspective on what happens to her in 1994? If the film had been half an hour shorter and more tightly edited, I wonder if this would be seen as European-style ‘social realism’? The Korean audience seems to have found the film interesting as it earned nearly $1 million from its 154 screen opening in the country to go alongside its journey through many overseas film festivals. The film is described by critics (and the director) as a ‘coming of age’ film. But it certainly isn’t a genre film. Coming of age is not a useful term. Some of us don’t ‘come of age’ until we are in our 20s. Instead it is a growing up film about a particular year.
In the interview below from the Busan festival, the director explains why she chose the title (it makes total sense to me now and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t work it out before). If this gets a release in the UK I would recommend it.
During the British New Wave of the late-fifties and early-sixties, ‘it’s grim up north’ was something of a trope; three recent fiction films suggest tough lives are now in the countryside. The Levelling follows God’s Own Country and Dark River (both UK, 2017) in representing traumatic lives on farms. The latter two are set ‘up north’, in Yorkshire; whilst the film under discussion is on the Somerset ‘levels’. I enjoyed the three films all of which deal with repression of some kind: sexuality, sexual abuse and male stoicism. It is the latter in The Levelling.
Ellie Kendrick plays Clover, a trainee vet, who returns home after the suicide of her brother. Her blustering dad, Aubrey (David Troughton, above), matter-of-factly tries to deal with what’s happening whilst ‘in denial’. Slowly, Clover’s doggedness uncovers the events that led to her brother’s death. Both actors are superb.
The film is writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature and superbly done it is. She cites the Dardennes brothers as an influence and early on the handheld camera follows Clover through the farm; my heart sank at this, my least favourite shot, though one the Dardennes have used effectively, but it doesn’t overstay its ‘welcome’. Leach captures the grimness, and the lack of sentimentality, of life on an economically challenged farm well. Dark River highlighted more the difficulties of making farming pay other than through ‘industrialisation’. However, all three films are melodramas so any politics is worked through the personal rather than looking at the macro issues of society. That said, God’s Own Country does include a scene in a local pub emphasising the hostility of some toward migrants.
Another recent film also dealing with the countryside, though in documentary form, was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (UK, 2017). Wright used ‘found footage’ to create a poetic montage of the changing attitudes towards nature in Britain. There’s some striking footage: a single black child in a school; a ’60s vox pop where the speaker claims he doesn’t care if birds disappear; a trippy hippy who says he loves ‘everyone’. As is the way of the form, it’s difficult to isolate the film’s ‘preferred reading’ (what it’s trying to say) but the impression I got was the countryside is a place where urban inhibitions can be shed (that’s probably a townie’s reading).
God’s Own Country achieved respectable box office in the UK for a low budget film, but most of the film-watching population will not have seen any of the four. Hence although all four films interrogate our relationship with nature they are unlikely to affect the zeitgeist. With global warming, looming Brexit and increasing urbanisation, it is important we (specifically in the UK but everywhere is affected) understand the natural world in 2019, so congratulations to all the filmmakers for speaking about our place and time. The Levelling is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 26 days.
Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.
Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.
The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.