China’s one-child policy is put under the microscope
The synopsis for So Long, My Son poignantly mentions that sometimes it can take a lifetime to say goodbye. At just over three hours long, some may be worried that Wang Xiaoshuai’s first fiction film in five years will last almost as long as that, but it’s a rare case of an epic drama justifying its lengthy runtime. Spanning four decades, Xiaoshuai tells the intimate story of a family frozen in time in the aftermath of a tragic accident, while around them China grows into the economic powerhouse we see it as today.
So Long, My Son finds its structure by jumping from one time period to another, although there are no clearly divided chapters that define where we are at any given moment. Refreshingly, Xiaoshuai has faith his audience will keep up with his movement from the present day into the past and back again, reflecting on the memories of Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Liyun (Yong Mei). Many of these moments play out in continuum, suggesting that yesterday isn’t so far away in our minds, especially when constantly reminded of it.
A shot of two boys open the film overlooking a group of friends playing in the shallows of a local reservoir. Yaojun and Liyun’s son, Xingxing, is everything but a blood brother to Haohao, sharing birthdays and living in the same cramped block of worker apartments. An accident at the reservoir sees Xingxing rushed to hospital, before we skip forward to see his now older parents struggling to deal with a moody teenage son who continues to resist Yaojun’s attempts to keep him line.
Despite its careful pacing, So Long, My Son demands you play close attention to these time jumps as without that investment it’s easy to become lost in the complex narrative. To understand the current family setup, Xiaoshuai returns back to the late 70s and the earlier years of Xingxing’s childhood when his parents were living in the north of the country and the government imposed the one-child policy that went on to last a generation. Liyun conceals the pregnancy of a second child until she is forced by her supervisor and best friend, Haiyan (Ai Liya), to have a late abortion. She barely survives the ordeal and is told she will be unable to conceive again.
Haiyan is also the mother of Haohao and she makes up part of a close group of friends who live and work in close proximity of each other. That includes young apprentice, Moli (Qi Xi), who plays a big role in the shaping of events later in the film when she returns to see her old teacher, Yaojun, before flying off to live in America. If it appears to be complicated and knotty, that’s because it is, which is often how life plays out for us all. And mirroring that reality even further, just when you might have it all figured out, there are more surprises to come.
The long and winding nature of the story is to be expected with a runtime as pronounced as this, and yet, it somehow feels surprisingly light. Much of that comes down to Xiaoshuai’s direction and faultless editing by Lee Chatametikool. They weave together a tapestry of emotional consequences that weigh heavily on this group of friends in the aftermath of Xingxing’s accident. At the same time, it details the aftermath of the country’s Cultural Revolution, economic growth into crony Capitalism and the way it impacts on their lives.
Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei collected the major acting prizes at Berlinale and it’s their remarkable restraint that makes the film feel so heart-achingly poignant in key moments. Few tears are shed onscreen (but when they do it hits home) and their stoicism sees them through events that would shatter most marriages into pieces. The couple share a co-dependency that comes from understanding how adversity can strengthen, rather than undermine, the choice made to spend a lifetime with another.
A helpful tip to keep you on track throughout the complicated narrative is the great makeup work that identifies what stage of life these people are at. So many films tend to overlook this crucial factor when ageing their characters, but small changes to hair, skin and facial shape is utterly convincing in portraying the passing years. “Time stopped moving for us a long time ago. Now we’re just waiting to get old,” says Yaojun when reflecting on the past and what’s left to come. We spend enough time with them to understand what that really means, but come the end they may be about to receive the reward they’ve long hoped for.
So Long, My Son is released in select UK cinemas on December 6
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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