'So Long My Son': Berlin Review

By Romney, Jonathan | Screen International, February 14, 2019 | Go to article overview

'So Long My Son': Berlin Review


Romney, Jonathan, Screen International


Wang Xiaoshuai’s ambitious work lights up the Berlinale Competition

Dir. Wang Xiaoshuai. China. 2019. 175 mins.

In So Long My Son, ‘Sixth Generation’ director Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) constructs a complex family chronicle that spans four decades and depicts some of the repercussions, cultural and psychological, of Chinese national policy since the 1980s. A challenging narrative structure - withholding key information and skipping between several time frames - makes this film a daunting watch overall. But Wang’s ambition and seriousness, aided by strong ensemble performances, ensure it is a formidable and, for the most part, involving work of novelistic scope. Festival prestige is certain, but commercial hopes could be boosted by a discreet trim.

Wang’s considered, indirect approach makes for a drama that’s emotionally affecting but historically revealing too.

For much of its length, So Long My Son can come across as either a frustrating or a tantalising head-scratcher, depending on your taste for hyper-fractured narratives. The fact that the characters age over several decades, often changing their appearance, while not everyone is precisely who we assume them to be, make the film a knotty proposition to untangle; go with the film, though, and So Long My Son yields insights into the rapid transformations and turbulence of Chinese society, in a way not dissimilar to certain films of Jia Zhangke.

The story begins by the side of a reservoir, where we meet two young boys, Liu Xing (aka Xingxing) and Shen Hao (or Haohao), one of whom swims while the other doesn’t; shortly after, one of them is rushed to hospital. The main body of the narrative centres on Liu Xing’s father Yaojun (Wang Jinchun) and mother Liyun (Yong Mai), who live in Southern China’s Fujian Province, and whom we next see struggling with their now-teenage son, soon to go AWOL in a fit of rebellious rage.

The action skips back several years to the 90s, then to the early 80s, to Yaojun and Liyun’s home town in the north, where they work in a factory. …

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