Sixth generation director Wang Xiaoshuai returns to Berlin with a decade-spanning family drama set against some of the most turbulent events in recent Chinese history. At just over three-hours, So Long, My Son is an emotionally wrenching film that’s epic in scope but intimate in feeling.
Depicting China’s difficult transition from state-controlled communism to state-sanctioned capitalism, So Long, My Son explores the lasting impression of China’s one-child policy. A heartbreaking investigation into the policy’s ripple-effect, this highly ambitious saga boasts a large cast of characters but focuses primarily on Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Yong Mei) and the film opens in a nameless northern city with the death of their son Xingxing, who drowns in a nearby reservoir after being goaded into swimming by his best friend HaoHao.
After this tragic event the film fast-forwards to the late 1990s, with Yaojun and Liyun now living in a Southern coastal town. Confusingly, they appear to be living with a teenage boy called Liu Xing (or Xingxing as they like to call him). It’s said that the favored status of the male child in Chinese families has resulted in a generation of “little emperors”, and Liu Xing is a prime example, a moody teenager who runs away from home after Yaojun threatens to turn him into the police for stealing from a classmate. It’s here, as the couple report their child as missing, that we discover he’s adopted.
The film is divided into three non-distinct segments; moving from the 1980s to the present day, and from the North of China to the South. The majority of the film revolves around flashbacks of Yaojun and Liyun’s life in Northern China where they used to live and work in the same factory as HaoHao’s parents Shen Yingming (Xu Cheng) and Haiyan (Ai Liya). Unlike a lot of contemporary independent chinese cinema, Wang avoids chronicling their dreary lives and labours, instead the film unfolds as a deeply personal saga of familial guilt set against the swirl of sociopolitical change.
Adopting an increasingly free and relaxed approach to its structure, the film’s narrative gets caught up in the emotional ebb and flow of memories; moving backwards and forwards in time on a sea of enigmas and loose ends. It takes a while for everything to coalesce, with these jolting narrative ellipses threatening to lose the audience in the films audacious leaps through time, but when it all falls into place the emotional impact is devastating.
Elegantly shot by Kim Hyun-seok, his camera is neither still nor obtrusive, taking on a life of its own; like a roaming eye transfixed by the film’s soothing rhythm. This allows the unassuming, yet tender performances of Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei to create a quietly devastating portrait of a nation shifting from the quiet acceptance of one form of ideology to another. We eventually discover that the death of their son was exacerbated by the fact Liyun is unable to have children after a botched abortion enforced on her by the factory’s official of planned parenthood; her best friend, and HaoHao’s mother, Haiyan.
In the film’s epilogue, Haiyan’s remorse over forcing Liyun to abort the child results in a heart wrenching reunion, with Liyun and Yaojun returning to a hometown that has dramatically changed. Secrets are uncovered and reconciliations are achieved and after an intriguing three-hour journey through 40 years of Chinese economic development we’re rewarded with a big emotional payoff; with the epic and the personal uniting seamlessly to suggest time can heal even the deepest wounds.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble