So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang, China, 2019)

The personal and the political enmeshed

So Long, My Son is a flabbergasting film (partly due to its three hour plus running time) in that it manages to intricately combine the political with the personal. While melodrama is often used to tell a story of an era sometimes, as in the case of this film, as a family saga where we see how the changing times affect different generations, it rarely does so in such a convincing way. The context here is the highly politicised China at the end of the last century when, in the late ’70s, the ‘one child’ policy was introduced to help the transition to state capitalism. The long running time of the film isn’t a strain on attention, just on brain power to hold all the detail; not a moment is wasted.

I first encountered Wang Xiaoshuai, a ‘sixth generation’ (from the Beijing film school) director, with his Beijing Bycycle (Shiqi sui de dan che, France-Taiwan-China, 2001), a homage to Bicycle ThievesThis generation’s defining moment was the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989) and so it’s no surprise to find a critical edge to their films. The criticism was not just toward the Chinese government, western consumerism was also a likely target, especially as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were aimed at introducing ‘luxuries’ such as refrigerators and colour televisions. So Long, My Son critiques the ‘one child’ policy through the couple, Yaojun and Liyun, played respectively by Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei (both award winners at last year’s Berlin Film Festival), as the film follows their lives from the mid-’80s to the present day. To avoid spoilers I won’t offer details of the narrative other than to say it is brilliantly structured (written by Wang and Ah Mei) so that the final 30 minutes is a brilliant summation of the preceding two and a half hours. That’s not so say it’s always easy to follow as, increasingly in modern ‘arty’ cinema I feel, it freely uses flashforwards and flashbacks without clearly indicating when we are. Dramatically I think this serves to show how our lives are a sum of our past: we can never escape our memories. In this sense the past is always with us.

Stylistically Wang is flexible, from a devastating use of a pan in extreme long shot, of a dramatic event early in the film, to striking ‘reverse shots’. The latter occurs with long takes followed by a shot of what is, in effect, behind the camera. In one scene the boss of a factory tells the workers there will be redundancies in the national interest, his long speech is followed by a shot of the audience, all wearing blue Mao suits. Their uniformity fills the screen and then they burst out in protest. Similarly, a scene at a tatty graveside is followed by a reverse shot of the immaculate graveyard. There is one brilliant, almost throwaway shot, of Yaojun looking out of a car window, when they return to their home town after years away, where he sees a statue of Mao. Behind him there’s building and the word ‘victory’ can be seen. Moments later, as the car moves, we can see it’s the name Victory Mall, so the building is shopping centre. Yaojun chuckles.

From a British (western?) perspective the use of tune from Auld Lang Syne in a Chinese version seems incongruous. I suspect the lyrics are the same, though, as the theme of old friendships runs throughout the film. The cinematography, by Kim Hyun Seok, is often beautiful and this is a film that needs to be seen more than once.

2 Responses

  1. […] in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire […]

  2. […] in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire […]

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