The devastating impact of China’s ‘one-child’ policy is laid bare in this heart-breaking, decades-spanning epic by Wang Xiaoshuai.
Dir. Wang Xiaoshuai
2019 | China | Drama/History | 185 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei
Plot: Two married couples adjust to the vast social and economic changes taking place in China from the 1980s to the present.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Best Actor & Best Actress (Berlin)
International Sales: The Match Factory
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Oldham Theatre)
At three hours long, you might be forgiven if you think that this is going to be a long slog. But go watch the film and behold how effortless it makes use of its lengthy duration to transform itself into one of the most engaging pictures of the year. For those who enjoy epics that dramatise history through the eyes of common folk, this will be heavensent.
A winner of both Best Actor and Best Actress (a rare occurrence) at the Berlin International Film Festival, So Long, My Son is director Wang Xiaoshuai at his most ambitious so far. Centering on two neighbouring families whose lives are intertwined, the film begins with a tragedy, and then proceeds to tell the story in a non-linear fashion.
I think at this juncture, from a structural standpoint, one might appreciate how risky a three-hour long non-chronological film can be, and in Wang’s boldness to attempt it, we get a work that is not just well-acted but meaningfully layered.
Through intuitive editing (by Lee Chatametikool, who is most famous for his collaborations with Apichatpong Weerasethakul), the film is able to build and match emotional intensities across time periods in a seamless and poetic way. This is perhaps So Long, My Son’s most impressive aspect—that it refuses to go down the safe and well-trodden path of rote storytelling.
Wang’s film chronicles a part of China’s modern history that continues to have social ramifications on families. The ‘one-child’ policy, while well-intended to protect national interests by putting a lid on unsustainable population, left many reeling from its devastating impact, particularly families who lost their only child early in their parenting years.
We bear witness to the raw emotions of grief and the coming-to-terms with one’s fateful existence through the events as experienced by Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife, Liyun (Yong Mei), over three decades as their country industrialises and modernises into the 21st century.
Early on in the film, the song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is used a number of times, as Wang establishes the poignant sub-theme of enduring friendship in tough times. While it is peculiar that the song is never played again, it is a testament to Wang’s confidence in the film’s strengths that he lets the performances achieve the same effect, particularly in the heart-wrenching finale.