So Long, My Son (Cert 12)
1 Disc DVD (Distributor: Curzon/Artificial Eye) Running Time: 178 minutes approx.
China is a complex country to us outsiders, and no doubt quite vexing to its inhabitants too. It can’t seem to make up its mind if it is a new capitalist superpower or one of the few remaining bastions of communism, the latter forming the basis of this epic saga, notably China’s controversial one-child policy as its central theme.
At the heart of this story are Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Wang Liyun (Yong Mei), a hard working husband and wife whose young son Xingxing drowned when swimming with friends in a reservoir. Because of the one-child policy, when Liyun fell pregnant whilst Xingxing was still alive she was forced to have an abortion but complications during the procedure left her unable to conceive again.
They later adopt another child, Liu Xing (Roy Wang) whom they rename Xingxing, but he grows up to resent them and frequently runs away until they finally let him go when he turns 18. Meanwhile their old friends, Shen Yingming (Xu Cheng) and Li Haiyan (Ai Liya), whose son Haohao was born on the same day as Xingxing, have gone on to have more successful lives and enjoy a prosperity Yaojun and Liyun never knew.
Wang Xiaoshuai has been a chronicler of China’s social changes and the plight of the under-privileged living under Communist rule for most of his 25-plus year career, but So Long, My Son is his most painfully frank film yet. Like his previous works, Wang doesn’t feel the need to get angry, he lets the stories play out as cynical allegories and lets the audience decide how they feel about it.
In what is a slightly confusing stratagem, at least for the first hour or so, the storytelling is non-linear, darting between timelines on a whim, or to explore the reason behind a particular development or reference to the past. Wang has rarely used this format before and it may prove distracting, yet once one gets used to it, we find he has used it wisely and effectively.
Beginning with Xingxing’s death in the early 80s, the setting jumps forward a decade to where Yaojun and Liyun have left the city, and now live in the coastal province of Fujian, with the truculent adopted Xingxing. His surly, rebellious attitude raises the ire of Yaojun and results in aggressive behaviour which only exacerbates the tension between them, with Liyun struggling to play peacemaker.
Nothing is suggested or implied as to where this comes from, leaving us to infer maybe both parties are aware that the lack of direct bloodline between them is a possible cause for this friction. A further flashback details the joint births of Xingxing and Haohao, their growing up together, and the closeness of the two families, a relationship that dates back many years.
Jumping back to 1979, the younger childless couples, along with friends Gao Meiyu (Li Jingjing) and Zhang Xinjian (Zhao Yanguozhang), all work together at the same factory. Haiyan however, has become a high-ranking member of the party, a role she takes too seriously, regularly ensuring everyone conforms and is not beyond reporting her own friends for their misdeeds as Xinjian finds out.
Haiyan’s shift to jobsworth enforcer is the catalyst for the friendship’s foundation to start crumbling, with Yaojun’s second pregnancy, ended when Haiyan marches Yaojun to the hospital herself for the abortion, more concerned about how it makes her look to the party and the factory. It beggars belief how Haiyan tries to make it up to them, in the first of two very pointed scenes in which Wang loosens the gloves a little.
The other scene in this vein is the most political of the film, a venomous depiction of the blinkered myopia and hypocrisy of communist mantra. The factory boss is forced to make redundancies but tells soon-to-be dismissed staff there is no shame in redundancy and greater honour in re-employment! No prizes for guessing how well received that was by the workers.
Wang and co-writer A Mei happily pile on the pain for Yaojun and Liyun in what appears incremental steps due to the random nature of the flashbacks but it is clear they have faced an uphill battle at every stage of their lives together. The one-child policy remains a prevalent issue through a subplot involving Yaojun and Yingming’s younger sister Shen Moli (Qi Xi), which I shouldn’t have to expand upon as I am sure you are way ahead of me, but as much as it is a cliché, it carries greater pathos in this context.
Covering nearly 40 years in 3 hours and using the same adult cast, Wang eschews the current Hollywood trend of digitally aging his cast, relying instead on good old-fashioned make-up and the superb actors. Some physical changes might be subtle depending on the timeline but the characters remain generally consistent, at least until old age catches up with them, bringing mellowness to the intense and dignity to the proud.
Everyone tasked with this does so with the utmost precision in capturing the nuance and natural air of the various stages of their characters lives, crystallised during a poignant reunion scene in the final act of emotional splendour. The two leads, Wang Jingchun and Wang Liyun, are nothing short of phenomenal throughout, not just in their performances but as a credible couple, though this is true of the others too.
But, it is the story that is the most important factor here and whilst it will change very little, Wang shows us in a sensitive but incisive manner the folly of the one-child policy in a country at odds with its own social and political philosophies. It is a stark and often gut-wrenching reminder that treating people as people shouldn’t be a privilege for the few but for everyone.
So Long, My Son didn’t need to be three hours long but every of it second is precious in Wang’s best and most vital work to date.
Mandarin Language 5.1 Dolby Surround
Mandarin Language 2.0 Dolby Stereo
Rating – ****
Man In Black