Little Red Flowers Review

There is very little in Zhang Yuan’s Little Red Flowers that indicates that it is a film made by a director who was once one of the most challenging young independent Chinese filmmakers. Placed under house arrest and with many of his films banned for directly challenging the official state view of social behaviour and family values in films such as Beijing Bastards, Seventeen Years and I Love You, Zhang Yuan’s films have tackled taboo subjects with an almost documentary-like realism. Set in a boarding kindergarten for pre-school children, Little Red Flowers’ glossy cinematography and cuteness would appear to contain very little that might upset the Chinese authorities, but is shares one theme common with many of the director’s films - that of outsiders who challenge authority and exhibit unconventional ways of thinking.

The rebel here in Little Red Flowers, Fang Qiangqiang, is only four years old. He has been placed in a boarding school for children of Communist Party officials who all obediently follow the rules laid down by the teachers. It’s a very regimented system where the young children have to learn to dress themselves in the morning, do a poop at the specified time, wash their hands before dinner and diligently learn their instructive songs. For adherence to the rules, the children are awarded with red paper flowers, but they are deducted for bad behaviour. Qiang doesn’t seem to be able to earn a single little red flower and doesn’t quite fit in with the other children, who regard the rebellious boy as a freak.

The subtext of the film is not too difficult to discern, advocating as it does non-conformity, resistance of authority and the indomitability of the human spirit. The use of children is a good method of putting this across, as the cruelty of restraining the freedom, imagination and unique qualities of individuality by training them to conform to uniformity of thought and action only appears all the more cruel and unjust when forced upon ones so young.

That point made however – and it is made quite clearly very early on, most emphatically when the kindergarten children march alongside a troupe of parading soldiers – Little Red Flowers has little more to offer other than the cuteness of the kids’ behaviour and misbehaviour. That is brilliantly achieved, with some beautiful photography and astonishingly naturalistic, charming performances from the very young cast, but, bar having rather more quite innocent child nudity than you might comfortably be accustomed to from western films, it is very much conventional and a long, long way away from the immediacy and urgency that are now being displayed by Zhang Yuan’s Sixth Generation colleagues in their study of the state of modern day China.

Little Red Flowers is released in the UK by Eureka. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

The video quality of the transfer here is simply beautiful. A lovely progressive transfer, there is not a flaw or mark on the print, just a strong stable image, not overly sharp or soft, with an acceptable level of grain, good clarity, tone and colour saturation. Edge enhancement however can be quite pronounced and some analogue-source cross-colouration may be evident, but these kind of issues are relatively minor and only troublesome if you are particularly sensitive to them.

While a surround mix ought to be expected for the film – and seems to be available on the Thai DVD release – there is only a Dolby Digital 2.0 option here. As far as it goes, it’s fine, with good clarity and depth of tone, but it doesn’t have the enveloping quality that would undoubtedly lift the film.

English subtitles are provided and are optional in a white font.

The extra features are dominated by the Making Of Documentary (44:22), which is inevitably quite different from standard making of features. It shows a lot of footage of the kids in the film just being themselves, and being young that means there’s a lot of crying and missing mummy as well as cute playfulness and over-boisterousness. The behind-the-scenes sequences do give some indication of the amount of preparation and rehearsal that went into getting the children to perform. It’s hardly in-depth filmmaking stuff, but with Chinese children being incredibly cute, this feature is almost impossible not to get caught-up in. The remaining features are made up of a Gallery of 24 very nice still photos and a pleasant little Trailer (1:59).

You have to give Zhang Yuan credit for the eclecticism and progression evident in his most recent films - from the documentary-like relationship drama of I Love You through the dazzling fantasy and glamour of Green Tea, to the childhood adventures of Little Red Flowers - all the while maintaining consistent in his championing of the outsider, the non-conformist and the individual. Quite how he was able to direct and elicit such remarkable performances from such a young cast should not be underestimated either, but it is the charm of the children that dominates what turns out to be an overly slick piece of cute-kid filmmaking. There’s a place for that, and if you like that kind of thing Little Red Flowers is hard to beat, but the film lacks the grit and urgency that used to be characteristic of Zhang Yuan, and when placed alongside the work being done by his Chinese filmmaking contemporaries, it only looks even more irrelevant.

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