There’s no better way to start the week than with a 185-minute tour of China’s recent history. Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son folds into its leisurely pace a piercing examination of China’s aggressive shift from a socialist economy to a globalised one.
The film is available on MUBI. Beginning in the 1980s and running into the present, So Long, My Son follows the ripple effects of a mishap that kills the only son of factory workers Yaojun and Liyun. They move away to another city and adopt a boy. But he rebels against them as a teenager and runs away.
In their later years, the couple return to the housing project that they were forced to abandon after they were laid off. They can scarcely recognise the city where they spent their youth. Transformed by global capital and a new breed of local entrepreneurs, this is the city of brochures and PowerPoint presentations, which has ruthlessly erased the past but not the memory of some of its residents.
Flashbacks reveal the manner in which the Chinese state’s decisions have a far-reaching impact on its citizens. This isn’t a story of humans being herded like sheep, but rather moving along kicking and screaming.
An unplanned pregnancy that violates the one-child policy leads straight to the abortion clinic. Although the workers at the government-run factory protest when they are told that many of them will be sacked (“Some of you must make sacrifices and seek employment somewhere else! No more iron rice bowls!”), they have no choice but to give in.
The tone is rueful, the acting stellar in its subtlety. Wang Jingchun, as Yaojun, and Yong Mei, as Liyun, justifiably won the Best Actor and Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 for their immersive performances.
Contemporary Chinese directors have mastered a style of observational filmmaking that skilfully subverts the country’s censorship laws. Much is conveyed through the simple placement of the camera to create juxtapositions of individuals against a rapidly changing landscape. Richly detailed production design and the use of dialogue only when necessary guide the eye to whatever isn’t being said but isn’t necessary to spell out. These films hold clear mirrors to Chinese society and leave it to viewers to project their own meanings onto the narratives.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s firmly observational style is revelatory. Without rushing things through, moving smoothly between the past and the present, and keeping a lid on emotions, Wang creates an affecting portrait of modern China. Yaojun and Liyun suffer deeply but endure, their resilience their greatest weapon against decisions made on their behalf.