So Long, My Son

Does a three-hour long film always have to be described as ‘epic’? Wang Xiaoshuai’s latest offering, premiered this year at the Berlin Film Festival, certainly qualifies for the 180 minute plus category.

That’s a long time in Row H (other rows are available) but it passes in flash, and indeed there was a certain sorrow saying farewell to the characters that Xiaoshuai brings to life in a gripping family drama set against the seismic changes taking place in China between the end of the Cultural Revolution and the late 90s.

The story follows the life trajectory of industrial workers Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Liyun (Yong Mei). This was the China of the one child policy and much of the film’s landscape deals with the pain and joy of this communist party attempt at social engineering. Their one beloved son, goaded by his mates to swim in the nearby reservoir, tragically drowns. The grieving couple adopt another boy, who has grown into a very unhappy out-of-control teen.

Xiaoshuai keeps up our interest (and that’s putting it mildly) by jumping the story back and forward between the mid 80s, when Liyun and Yaojun are in Maoist garb, and the later period when a touch of consumerism has come even to their extremely humble dwelling, with its one cold tap and tendency to sudden flooding. Each jump in time is done with a fleeting deftness, the lightest of brush strokes and indeed there is a painterly quality about Xiaoshuai’s landscapes. His lens often serves as an eyewitness, a sudden recall of memory; action is often going on in the far distance, and the hand-held camera sometimes makes us feel that we are intruding into a private but compelling narrative.

If you were to see one film in this festival, then consider this one. All human life is there as well as a fascinating insight into Chinese life in a time of social upheaval. The scale is vast, the stories are intimate – surely a definition of epic.

Screening at the Cambridge Film Festival 2019 on Sun 20th Oct at 14.30 and Wed 23rd Oct at 10.00, at the Arts Picturehouse.

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