So Long, My Son

 

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A remarkable film that both pleases and displeases.

 
So Long, My Son
   

We are all familiar with films that we admire and also with movies that irritate us. With So Long, My Son we have a real rarity in that it is a work that made me admire it but which also frequently irritated me. The director here is Wang Xiaoshuai and, since he provided the story and co-wrote the screenplay, the film is very much his creation. As far as the material goes, there is much promise in it since the tale told is set in China and takes place against that country’s social history as it plays out over some thirty or more years concluding in the present.

 

The one issue that links the historical aspect directly with the personal story that unfolds is the official Chinese policy of allowing a couple to have only one child. In a film which has two couples at its centre (a third pair play a subsidiary role) this requirement becomes pivotal in their lives. Liyun (Yong Mei) loses a young son, Xiangxiang, when he dies in a reservoir and, although her husband, Yaojun (Wang Jingchun), makes her pregnant again, she is forced to have an abortion which, as it turns out, leaves her unable to have another child at any time. Her close friend Halyan (Ai Liya), is married to Shen Yingming (Xu Cheng) and these two form the other main couple. Their lives became haunted by a sense of guilt and there are two reasons for this: Halyan’s role in family planning meant that she was the one whose actions left Liyun childless while it was Haohao, the son of this second couple, who had been largely responsible for pushing young Xiangxiang, a boy who could not swim, to enter into the water where he drowned. 

 

On paper, the story could sound melodramatic, but Wang tells it in a way that brings to mind the sense of everyday realism found in the films of Ozu. The two leads, Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, are splendid, but all the cast are very fine indeed and nobody ever seems like an actor playing a role. This feeling of realism is enhanced by the supreme skill with which ageing makeup is applied as the story moves forward. Two scenes in particular stand out: one sees Yaojun and Liyun return to their old home for the first time in years (no music, almost no dialogue and a long enough pause for us to soak in the emotion) and the other is an equally unforced scene which arises because, in compensation for their loss, the couple have adopted a child. This boy proves in time to be rebellious and the most memorable moment of all comes when Yaojun allows the youth to make his own way in the world as he wishes and, instead of criticising him for this choice, gives him money.

 

So Long, My Son has all the ingredients for a truly compelling family tale while in addition on another level it provides a metaphor for a wider comment on our need to come to terms with the past and to learn from it. Just because it has so much potential, it is infuriating to find that Wang chooses to jump back and forth in them so frequently while also often failing to tell the story with sufficient clarity (there are too many enigmatic moments and too many subsidiary characters presented in a manner that can confuse us - as an example of that take the scene early on when the adopted son is seen for the first time appearing out of nowhere and baffling us further because he has the same name as the boy whom we had assumed to be dead). Any film that lasts for over three hours as this one does is demanding for an audience who need to be given a smooth ride: So Long, My Son becomes wearying as we struggle to keep up with the latest switch in time and with the latest plot developments. It’s also the case that the attempt to give the film an upbeat tone at the end results in the one example of the film becoming contrived enough to feel sentimental. Nevertheless, for all the irritation that results from these elements much of the film is so persuasive that it also calls forth one’s genuine admiration.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei, Qi Ki, Ai Liya, Xu Cheng, Du Jiang, Wang Yuan, Li Jingling, Zhao Yanguozhang.

 

Dir Wang Xiaoshuai, Pro Liu Kuan, Screenplay A Mei and Wang Xiaoshuai, Ph Kim Hyung-Seok, Pro Des LV Dong, Chief Ed Lee Chatametikool, Music Dong Yingda, Wardrobe Stylist Pang Yan.

 

Dongchun Films/Hehe Pictures Corporation/FunShow Culture Communication (Beijing) Co./Zhengfu Pictures-Curzon Artificial Eye.
185 mins. People’s Republic of China. 2019. Rel: 6 December 2019. Cert. 12A.