VOD film review: So Long, My Son
9/10 Total Rating 9/10
Wang Xiaoshuai’s epic and emotional family drama explores the far-reaching impact of China’s one-child policy.
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai Cast: Wang Jingchiun, Yong Mei, Qi Xi, Wang Yuan, Du Jiang, Ai Liya, Xu Cheng, Li Jingjing, Zhao Yanguozhang Certificate: 12 Watch So Long, My Son online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Given its devastating impact across generations, it’s perhaps surprising that there haven’t been more films made about China’s state-imposed one-child policy, which began in the 1970s and was only lifted as recently as 2015. That could be about to change, as 2019 has seen the release of both Nanfu Wang’s devastating documentary One Child Nation and now this epic, three-hour family drama from co-writer / director Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle).
The story centres on a small circle of friends over the course of three decades. Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife, Liyun (Yong Mei), are left childless when their young son, Xingxing, dies in a terrible accident, after being persuaded to swim in a reservoir by his friend, Haohao. To compound their misery, it transpires that Liyun’s best friend, Haiyan (Al Liya) – Haohao’s mother and also a local Communist Party apparatchik at the local factory – had earlier forced Liyun to abort a second child, rigidly enforcing the country’s one child policy. Yaojun and Liyun move away to a seaside town and adopt another boy, but their misery continues when he runs away from home at 16.
There are further subplots, including the arrest of exuberant family friend Xinjian (Zhao Yanguozhang) for attending “decadent” dance parties and a more complex plot entanglement involving Yaojun and Haohao’s pretty young aunt Moli (Qi Xi), who has her own unique way of trying to atone for her family’s guilt.
The film makes remarkable use of a complex narrative structure that continually loops back and forth through the three decades. Wang Xiaoshuai gives the audience precious few clues as to the current time period, so it’s essential to play close attention. One particularly confusing aspect is that Yaojun and Liyun rename their adopted son Xingxing, so he appears, alive and well, as a teenager, almost immediately after we’ve apparently seen him drown as a child. Consequently, the innovative structure springs several powerful surprises, as various secrets come to light throughout the years and the pay-off in the final act is utterly heart-breaking.
The performances are exceptional. Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei are devastating to watch, their feelings of helplessness and despair etched deeply into their faces. So much of the film’s power comes from suppressed emotions, whether it’s Yaojun and Liyun’s grief, or the guilt that eats away at Haiyan (who later has a second child of her own) and Haohao.
Wang Xiaoshuai achieves an extraordinary level of naturalism with the performances of his actors, something that’s compounded by the emphasis of landscape and the film’s extensive use of long shots. The film is further heightened by Dong Yingda’s superb score, as well as a soundtrack that repeatedly uses a Chinese version of Auld Lang Syne to strong effect, especially when the characters discuss its meaning.
The script provides a fascinating history of the cultural and political shifts in China, as experienced by its characters. As a result, there are several telling details, such as workers reacting to being told to voluntarily give up their jobs for the good of the workforce, and little moments that land with real impact, such as Yaojun and Liyun returning to their home town after many years.
Ultimately, So Long, My Son earns every minute of its sprawling, 185-minute runtime, delivering an intriguingly structured, moving and stunningly acted tale that will stay with you a long time.