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 first part of a double bill of new Chinese films at the Glasgow Festival (see comments on Dearest to follow) is Wang Xiaoshuai’s third part of a loose trilogy about the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ‘rightist’ families from the East of China sent to factories in the Western part of the country. The first two parts dealt with life in the Western cities in Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers. The third film focuses on the Deng family in Beijing and it is some time into the film that we realise the connection to the other two films.
Wang is a ‘Sixth Generation’ director who, unlike his peers such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye, has tended to produce films that seem to be more like the social realist art films of the West. Red Amnesia begins as if it is going to be a form of ‘social issue’ film in which the central character is Mrs Deng as a woman in her late 60s who is seen as something of a nuisance by her grown-up sons. She lives in her old apartment in Beijing after the death of her husband and visits both her married son and her gay son, as well as her own mother in a care home. Is the issue the care of the elderly (or merely ‘old’) in a society which for generations has venerated them? Certainly her daughter-in-law, a thoroughly modern, ‘globalised’ woman, doesn’t want her ‘interference’. Soon, however, the film changes genres and we seem to be in thriller mode with mysterious phone calls and other disturbances. At one point I thought that the intention was to enter J-horror territory as Mrs Deng, who regularly converses with her dead husband, seems to be being followed by a teenage boy who doesn’t seem quite real when she invites him to dinner. (I’m thinking here of Nakata Hideo’s films like Dark Water.)
Eventually, we will learn that the boy is a link to Guizhou in South-West China where Wang’s family were placed and he was born. Did the Dengs do something which has prompted retaliation now they are back in Beijing? The Guizhou references reminded me a little bit of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City with its tales of workers being sent to a factory in the South-West for strategic reasons. Only in the later sequences do we realise that the credit sequence at the beginning of the film had actually shown us the abandoned factory in Guizhou.
As Mrs Deng, the theatre actor Lu Zhong is wonderful and the other performances are strong. This well-made film should attract audiences but in the West, as the years go by, I wonder how many of the younger audience will appreciate the points about the Cultural Revolution?
I think that my response to 11 Flowers was definitely affected by the context of its screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of the Symposium on Chinese Film Distribution and Exhibition in the UK. The print was acquired via the Pan-Asian Film Festival in London where it was screened earlier in March. Although 11 Flowers is due to open in France in May there is currently no sign of a UK release. Given that writer/director Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the leading figures of what was once called the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers, this absence of a UK distribution deal says quite a lot about the poor state of British foreign language film distribution, especially from East Asia.
Wang was born in Shanghai 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was moving into gear in China. His parents were moved to Guizhou in South-Western China where the young Wang spent his early childhood. Wang’s earlier Shanghai Dreams (China 2005) told a fictional story about the later consequences of that kind of internal migration when a couple wish to move back to Shanghai in the 1980s but discover that their teenage daughter has become attached to a local boy. 11 Flowers has several features in common with the earlier film but this time the story is set in the mid 1970s and is much more autobiographical. The central character is a pre-teen boy in a small town in South-West China. He has three close friends and the little gang hang out at school and in the woods close to the town. The boy’s father is a singer/performer now forced into an unspecified job and his mother works in the local textiles factory. The boy is talented – he is learning to paint under his father’s guidance – and he has been chosen to lead the gymnastics display at his school. This requires that he has a new shirt. It is this shirt that will trigger the series of events that will involve the boy as an accidental participant in a local tragedy. (I won’t spoil the narrative just in case you do get the chance to see the film – suffice to say the tragedy is personal, but also offers a kind of commentary on the turmoil of the period.) The little family seems clearly modelled on Wang’s own since he was around this age in 1975, he did eventually become a fine artist and his parents did have similar jobs.
The use of the shirt as a narrative device in this way is reminiscent of the neo-realist films from Italy in the late 1940s when a seemingly mundane action might enable a clever scriptwriter to fashion an involving story from the reality of everyday lives in a local community. Wang achieved something similar in his best-known film released in the UK, Beijing Bicycle (1999) in which the theft of a poor young man’s new bicycle prompts a story about class divisions in the new Beijing. The new film’s story is rather different, largely because it is told from the child’s perspective. The tensions of community life towards the end of the Cultural Revolution are evident in the background and the unrest explains some of the actions which are not really understood by the children. Discussing the film afterwards with other members of the symposium it struck me that in some ways the film most resembled the humanist realist films of the 1950s. Pather Panchali (India 1955), Satyajit Ray’s early masterpiece, offers a child’s vision of a world in which parents struggle to make a home for their children and Wang certainly has the talent to offer something similar. Visually, the film is superb in its presentation of the grim industrial town and its rather beautiful hinterland of woods and riverside. For much of the film it is misty or raining – a suitably sombre setting for what is not a particularly jolly tale even as we are invited to respond to the humanity of the family and their friends.
But this isn’t a 1950s humanist tale. It is about that pivotal moment in Chinese history, just before the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1976. The weight of history and the re-working of personal memories in a film like this seems to me to have been done several times already. Of course, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be done again and again. It was for hundreds of thousands of people a terrible period in which lives were ruined. However, the story does need to be told differently each time or it becomes stale. Wang’s film is very slow and although this didn’t particularly bother me, one colleague said after the screening that he’d looked at his watch after 90 minutes and realised that nothing much else was going to happen in the next 25. The other point that we discussed after the screening was that this and similar stories are always told from the perspective of the intellectuals who were sent to the countryside. Less often do we get stories focused on the officials who were already there or the peasants/townspeople who have received the migrants into their communities. It’s for this reason that I found Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock intriguing since it offers an insight into the lives of PLA soldiers (albeit briefly in terms of this period). In 11 Flowers there are several characters such as the school principal, local police officers and others who I would have liked to learn more about. What was it like trying to “do your job” in your home town in the context of the upheavals during the 1966-76 period?
11 Flowers is certainly a well-made film (and one made with feeling) and I have to point out that the majority of quite a healthy audience for this one-off screening in Manchester clearly enjoyed the film very much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if there had been more songs and possibly more about painting – if perhaps it had been less realist and more of a melodrama? I have to confess also that I missed whatever the direct reference to flowers might be – although the boy was encouraged to learn how to paint like the French Impressionists. (I’ve since learned that the Chinese title is ‘Me, 11’ which makes much more sense.) I had the same thoughts that occurred to a reviewer of the film when it screened in the Pan-Asian Film Festival – that 11 Flowers is similar to another tale with similar ingredients that is also a Chinese/French co-production: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002). With so few Chinese films released in the UK it seems churlish to complain that those we do see often seem to tell the same story, but that is sometimes how it feels. Fortunately I have some DVDs from YesAsia to watch. In the meantime, if by any chance 11 Flowers gets a release, I’d still argue that it is worth seeing.
One of the problems associated with naming ‘generations’ of filmmakers as with the ‘Fifth Generation’ in China, is that it becomes easy to forget that survivors of previous generations, such as Xie Jin were still making films in the 1980s and 1990s. The same problem arises with the naming of the ‘Sixth Generation’. This time, the basis for such a title is even more sketchy, compounding the potential for confusion. It is probably more useful to try to identify filmmakers in China today who have similar aims and who face similar constraints on what they can do.
Wang Xiaoshuai, Director
Born in Shanghai in 1966, Wang Xiaoshuai is considered as one of the most talented young filmmakers in China. He studied film directing at the Beijing Film Academy between 1985 and 1989. This means he started film school soon after the Fifth Generation graduated, yet he did not share the same experiences of the Cultural Revolution, being much younger. His feature films include:
1993 The Days (Dongchun de rizi);
1995 Frozen (Jidu hanleng);
1996 Shoulder Pole and Girls (Biandan guniang);
1999 So Close to Paradise (Fenghuan tianyuan);
“The bicycle has always been an emblem of Beijing and even of China as a whole. For years it was the only means of transport for families. When I was young, the fact of having several bicycles was a sign that you were either wealthy or resourceful. Before China started opening up a family’s standard of living was evaluated by what were termed as the ‘Big Four’: a watch, a sewing machine, a radio and a bicycle. Today the Big Four are no longer the same . . . Although the bicycle has lost a lot of its glory it remains an important means of transport since there aren’t many motorcycles or cars. It no longer is the object that everyone wants to own but remains essential even if people wish to replace it. Unlike the sewing machine or the radio, it has gradually become a symbol of a lack of means.
Guei, the courier, has a bicycle; for him it is the sign of social advancement and represents an important transition compared with his life in the village; Jian, although he is a student, comes from a poor family who still hold the bicycle in admiration, and for whom the purchase of a bicycle is a major decision. Jian’s love for his bicycle goes beyond his objective need for the object. His wish to possess it is motivated by his feeling of pride in front of this friends and his girlfriend.
Beijing is a town of great variety: in some areas there are courtyards, mazes of small streets with old people taking in the sunshine, buildings with traditional rooftops, and in others there are modern buildings and all the hustle and bustle of major modern cities. However, there are fewer and fewer small streets, the places where we were able to film were in fact very limited, we had to move the whole crew from one place to another. Each time I wanted to change the angle of my shots in the chase scenes so we couldn’t use the same locations all the time. We always had to negotiate with the residents and the local associations. I sadly realised that this picturesque aspect of the city was disappearing, whilst I remained aware of the fact that the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods also had the right to enjoy better living conditions.”
(’Director’s Statement’ from http://www.asianfilms.org/china/danche.html – no longer available)
Wang’s film is typical of modern Chinese films – a co-production. The producer/writer is from Taiwan and the involvement of French companies helped get the film distributed outside China. In fact, the pressure to get a print out to the Berlin Festival in 2001, where it won prizes, meant that the film didn’t follow the correct procedures within China and was therefore banned until it could be resubmitted. Wang was dubbed an ‘underground’ filmmaker as a result (Beijing Review February 2004). This is ironic because, compared to a filmmaker like Jia Zhang-ke, who might well fit the title, Wang in Beijing Bicycle is drawing on ‘universal themes’ of classic international cinema, not least in his borrowings from de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. He has had his problems with censorship in the past, but has also consistently worked ‘within the system’.
Q What was it like going from being an underground filmmaker to being a commercial filmmaker? What was it like working on a co-production between Arc Light Films and Beijing Film Studio?
A Underground or above, it all depends on the subject matter. If what I wanted to do were not allowed, then I would consider going underground. The different approaches require different frames of mind. When shooting above ground, getting approval is a constant concern, and it affects the way one thinks about a film. After a while, it becomes restriction. This is not good for a director. Shooting underground is only a mode of production with more freedom. Independent of any established production structures, it results in more and more production units, each seeking its distribution market and each searching for its own definition. Under the present system, shooting underground allows for more versatility and independence. But as long as its illegal, the scale of the projects will remain small and you have to work in conditions that are not natural. (Wang Xiaoshuai in an interview from the film’s Press Book.)
Because he remained ‘official’ (at least before submitting the film) Wang was able to produce a film of high visual quality with impressive location shooting. In contrast, other Sixth Generation directors (sometimes also called the ‘Urban Generation’) have had to use cheaper technologies (digital video) and to develop shooting styles that are appropriate for low budgets and restricted operation. In this way, Beijing Bicycle shares a visual gloss with a film like The Little Chinese Seamstress (2002) made by an expatriate Chinese director, returning to China but working out of France, rather than the work of truly underground directors such as Jia Zhang-ke.
Themes and ‘social issues’
The relative innocence of the young characters trying to live ‘normal’ lives in the hustle of rapidly developing Beijing can be contrasted with the ‘drifters’ in provincial Datong in Jia’s Unknown Pleasures or the film noir world of the characters in Suzhou River. Even so, there is a ‘down’ ending to the story which contrasts with the more upbeat, but equally ‘neorealist’ Not One Less (1999) from Zhang Yimou.
The narrative hook of Beijing Bicycle comes in the traditional humanist story of the two boys and their relationship forged through their desire for the bicycle, behind which is a more complex reflection on the potential social problems created by urban development and the threat to traditional forms of (family) discipline.
Guei represents one of an estimated 100 million people who have left the rural areas to make lives in the big cities, where they are increasingly the subject of discrimination and prejudice. Guei is lucky to have a friend and protector who helps him because they share a common experience. The beautiful girl (played by current celebrity star Zhou Xun) also turns out to be a ‘country girl’ employed as a maid.
Jian, although in a different social stratum, is still subject to the problems of city life. His family is not rich, but it is ambitious. His father has married again, so there are two children in the family. But Jian displays the symptoms of the social problems caused by the ‘one child’ policy of the 1980s, when the Chinese authorities sought to control population growth. In demographic terms, the policy was a success, but the social costs may be high. The generation of ‘only children’ is seen as having grown up as ‘spoiled’ by their parents. This means that they do not appreciate the value of things and are easily seduced by Western style consumer goods. As a result they get into debt and are incapable of living without the support of their parents – who they don’t necessarily respect. At the same time they are confident, assertive and intelligent (or at least well-educated) compared to earlier generations.
Thus in Beijing Bicycle, Guei needs the bicycle in order to survive, but Jian needs it to show off to his friends (and his girlfriend) – he doesn’t understand its real value in social terms (and perhaps not the struggle that his father has had to raise the money which Jian has stolen to pay for it). Jian’s rather selfish actions lead to more pain for Guei. Perhaps the underlying criticism of Jian makes this a ‘political’ film? In fact the ending of the narrative is ‘open’ and could be read in a number of ways. Overall, although not directly ‘political’, Beijing Bicycle could indeed be provocative and it raises questions about how, or even if, the Chinese authorities can manage the shift to an increasingly urban society. The shift is taking place very rapidly. The film may already be out of date.
Starting points for discussion
1. Can we distinguish the ‘universal’ themes of the film and the specific social issues of contemporary Beijing?
2. What do we make of the ending of the film? Is it in any way ‘critical’ of the authorities or ‘doubting’ about the future?
Roy Stafford 30/11/04