Watching China #1: So Long, My Son

It’s funny how easy it is to get out of the reading habit. A busy few weeks at work and a busy few weeks at home and I’ve somehow lost the ability to pick up a book during the day, and if I try to read before sleep I can barely make a few pages before nodding off.

So I’ve turned to film. Chinese film and literature have always remained close in my mind; perhaps because my formal study of the development of the distinctive modern Chinese literary voice treated film in parallel. I also had a literary Chinese teacher who made the case for the language of contemporary Chinese film being closely related to classical poetry. Or it may be much more simple – when I was young and developing and interest in China, accessing films was the easiest way to learn about China.

One of the very first films I saw in a cinema (and the Curzon Soho at that, my single favourite cinema in London) was Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle from 2001 which touched me as a representation of boyhood and as possibly the first film I had seen set in contemporary post-Deng China. In the tradition of periodisation Wang is a tentpole Sixth Generation director; I’ve always found the Sixth Generation’s films much harder to love than the Fifth’s. The Sixth is more raw, raging against the hollowness and unfairness of globalisation and Chinese capitalism; whereas the films of the Fifth were wide-ranging and ambiguous in ideology and form as befits the first generation to be really testing the reins of political control, not to mention testing new technologies and ways of writing characters and stories. I’m more consistently impressed by Sixth Generation films, but more consistently delighted by the Fifth.

Having small children, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the actual cinema for anything other than Shaun the Sheep, but I am a long time Mubi subscriber. Mubi in the UK has featured some great Chinese films over the last few years: including retrospectives of Zhang Yimou, Lou Ye, Tsai Ming-liang, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai and King Hu (currently playing); but also new released by Diao Yi’nan, Chu Hsien-che, Liu Jian and now the latest Wang Xiaoshuai, the much-lauded So Long, My Son (地久天长).

So Long, My Son review – a gorgeous, melancholy masterpiece | World cinema  | The Guardian

So Long, My Son is recognisably by the same director as Beijing Bicycle – just twenty years more mature. It is staggeringly good. Like Beijing Bicycle two boys are at the heart of it, in this case Liu Xing (Xingxing) and Shen Hao (Haohao). The film opens with the aftermath of Xingxing’s drowning in an accident at a reservoir. His parents, played by Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei (both winners at the Berlinale), move to Fujian and adopt another boy, who they also call Xingxing, who proves to be wayward. The story moves comfortably across decades – we see the two boys as toddlers playing and celebrating their shared birthday together; we see Xingxing’s parents strongarmed into terminating a second pregnancy under the one child policy before his death; and ultimately we see Liu’s parents return to their hometown to reconcile with Shen’s parents before his mother’s death and the birth of his own child, at which point Haohao reveals to them more of the terrible circumstance of Xingxing’s death.

It’s a long film at three hours but elegantly paced: tightly plotted, but with enough space to explore Xingxing’s parents’ heartache. Only a subplot involving Xingxing’s father’s affair seems remotely superfluous. Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei’s performances are outstandingly moving, using that space expansively and thoughtfully to portray two people utterly lost (“We don’t know anyone here. We don’t know anything.”). I can’t think of any better performances I’ve seen recently on film. Wang Liyun’s pained face as they are presented with the ‘1986 award for family planning’ following the forced termination will stay with me for a long time.

The film is also beautiful to look at. Most of the scenes take place in small rooms, but while It could be washed out and small, Wang finds a momentousness in them, and picks out bold colours (especially green) to give a depth to the otherwise silent grief. Depth and breadth comes from long corridors, wide shots and a thoughtful soundtrack – Auld Lang Syne features heavily. The camera makes the most of locations, whether the reservoir, factory or the Fujianese fishing village, picking out painterly details and patterns.

Wang Xiaoshuai is twenty years more mature since Beijing Bicycle and so am I. I have two young sons now, and have had several friends die too young. The scenes of Xingxing’s death were almost unbearable for me. They are almost entirely wordless – a long shot of the reservoir under a grey sky, a boy with his head in his hands, running through a train tunnel carrying Xingxing’s body, a hospital corridor. It is beautifully composed, maximising the awful impact. At the heart of So Long, My Son is the tragedy of young death, the way it not only defines the person’s life for ever, but how it defines the futures of everyone they leave behind. Xingxing’s parents do not resent Xingxing or Haohao; they can only battle lifelessly against their circumstance.

By coincidence I watched this just after re-watching Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, another film with boyhood and early death at its heart. While 80s Hollywood could create something light and life-affirming from this, Wang cannot do the same in 80s China. The central sorrow of So Long, My Son is the one child policy, without which Xingxing’s parents would have had another child, and while they would not have been spared the grief of Xingxing’s death they would not have suffered the total destruction of their own futures. Wang, like Xingxing’s parents, has a stoical yet resigned attitude to their grief, but the only time he seems truly angry is dealing with the consequences of that policy. In that, it almost seems more like a Fifth Generation film – measured, complex, rooted in a small towns and ordinary people, with deep political criticism.

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