Sunday 15 December 2019

Long goodbyes: "So Long, My Son"

Wang Xiaoshuai has called his 185-minute epic So Long, My Son, which speaks to a keen sense of humour on the writer-director's part: this is surely one of those titles that risks answering the question "How was the film?". It's just possible Wang was going for something along the lines of Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine, the last immersive three-hour Chinese drama to catch on in the West, yet equally that title makes an apt fit with Wang's novelistic narrative, an extended fort/da game premised on paralleled separations of parents from child. Somewhere close to the present day, we're introduced to Yaoyun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Mei Yong), a working-class couple living in a port town that quickly comes to feel like a place of exile, or the end of the world: "We like it here," Yaoyun insists, "We don't know anyone". Their sulky teenage charge Liu Xing (Roy Wang) is less enthusiastic, however; one afternoon, he simply ups and leaves. Flashbacks fill in why Liu Xing is so restless, so rootless: he forms part of two close-knit families sundered more or less completely after a tragic accident at a reservoir. That accident, which gives So Long, My Son its very first scene, actually sits at the centre of the film's timeline; director Wang uses it to create a ripple effect, and to note how even the theoretically level playing field of late 20th century Communist China had its haves and have-nots, less a matter of material resources, though those will play a part, than it is of simple happiness. The length matters less, in the end, than the extraordinary depths of sadness the movie comes to plumb.

Wang's theme is how, in this part of the world at this extended point in time, lives were affected by both fate and the state. Those flashbacks carry us further back, to the late Seventies clampdown on so-called "debauchery" that fed into the introduction of China's one-child policy, implemented here - in the cruellest of twists - just as Liyun falls pregnant for the second time. Watching her being frogmarched to the abortion clinic, unaware of the watery fate awaiting her first-born son, is but the first of several altogether bracing ironies here. The downcast couple are barely back from the clinic when they're hauled on stage at work to receive a family planning prize; the bereaved Yaoyun will eventually discover he fathered a second child by another woman; and somehow it seems harsh indeed that a couple who lost a child to drowning should find themselves living so close to the sea. Perhaps that makes So Long, My Son sound offputtingly tough, yet it's really only ever as tough as life is tough. As the second half played out, the film's rapturous reception at this year's Berlin film festival began to make more and more sense, as this is ultimately a drama about reunification, and you can see why British critics and audiences have responded as they have to it, too: these characters are stoics, obliged to drown their sorrows and suck up their grief, instructed to at all points keep calm and carry on. Every now and again, something more subversive bobs into view. As we watch factory workers heckling the CP official who's laying them off, you're reminded of a minor miracle: that So Long, My Son, a Chinese film that falls somewhere between ambivalent towards and openly critical of a state social engineering project, has played widely, without censorship, and swept the major acting prizes at this year's Golden Rooster awards, the Chinese Oscars.

In part, one suspects that's a consequence of Wang addressing a truth that cannot be suppressed, because it's already been lived through by so many, perhaps even by the censors themselves. The film feels as big and as wide as China itself - a national epic without the nationalism; a national epic tragedy, perhaps - and covering the ground it does means some of it is bound to have overlapped with painful experience. Yet it's also down to the way this story has been told, with great delicacy and assurance: no-one would be likely to mistake its unhurried humanism for a revolutionary tract. Though the Korean cinematographer Hyun Seok Kim fends off grimness with bold dabs of colour, the film remains rather conservative stylistically, and those censors may just have taken the narrative as proof of the resilience and adaptability of the one-child family unit. Yet it has great cinematic coups, like the cut back from one longish flashback to the man and the woman whose conversation cued it, still sitting in a room now flooded with twilight: the characters get caught up in these events, much as we do. The actors, particularly the exceptional Wang and Yong, do a sterling job of linking their characters' carefree younger incarnations with the regretful, worryworn elders who appear hyper-aware time is running out to effectuate the reunions that might restore their peace of mind; and there's a poignant use of the Chinese variant of "Auld Lang Syne", always a tune to make the listener teary, never more so than at this late stage of the year, when we look back over our shoulders and reflect upon those we've lost or left behind. The acquaintances we make in Wang's film are by no means easily forgotten, and many of them come to seem terribly, heartbreakingly missed.

So Long, My Son is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon. 

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