So Long, My Son (2019) REVIEW | Berlinale 2019

"Empathetic, unpredictable and unmistakably assured, it is a deeply moving experience that kept me involved from beginning to end."

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A tale of grief spanning over 30 years, So Long, My Son is a remarkably heavy film. Three hours long, it is both intimate and epic, charting the unlucky fortunes of one couple in the wake of China’s capitalist explosion. Empathetic, unpredictable and unmistakably assured, it is a deeply moving experience that kept me involved from beginning to end.

The story starts with a tragedy in the late 80s. Two boys are playing near a reservoir. One wants to go swimming while the other — wearing a Mickey Mouse backpack — says he’d prefer stay on the coast. The camera follows the assertive boy rush into the distance while the other stays in the foreground, looking wistfully ahead. The way this scene is framed is a sign of what’s to come; a film simultaneously looking forwards and backwards, elegantly probing the dark side of China’s remarkable progress.

Xingxing, the son of Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Wang Liyun (Yong Mei), is later found drowned. In another excellent shot, we watch from far away as his parents run to him, a God-like long take rubbing in the horrific inevitability of such a terrible event. The remaining scenes are draped in similarly masterful symbolism. It’s notable that Xingxing drowns in a reservoir — a man-made construction — instead of a natural lake. And when Yaojun rushes to the hospital in vain with Xingxing draped in his arms, a train whooshes by, foretelling both the onrush of time and China’s own rapid industrialisation. In just the space of a few minutes, director Xiaoshuai Wang sets us up for the multilayered conflict to come.

They leave home to a far-away coastal town with absolutely no connection to the past. The locals speak in a completely different dialect, giving it the feel of another country. They adopt a new son, Liu Xing (Wang Yuan), who resents his parents and their foreign accents. When he runs away, they must confront once again what it means to be parentless, slowly unearthing deep-rooted secrets tied up with the harsh policies of the state. The final result is nothing less than a diagnosis on the birth of a modern nation.

Fluidly edited, the story cuts back and forth between the past with abandon. This non-linear narrative is not a mere gimmick, but a way to suggest the past never really leaves us, no matter where we go. The environments constantly change. The worker’s factories — supposed to be guarantors of jobs for life — let people go and dormitories are replaced by condos. Chairman Mao stands outside a paradoxical “victory mall”.

But people find it harder to forget than buildings, the film asking hard questions of the country’s communist legacy. What was the Great Revolution for if these ideals no longer remain? And why did one generation have to suffer for the next to prosper? Using its generous runtime to slowly accumulate details of repression and censorship, it’s a harsh indictment of both past and present China, which leaves people like Yaojun and Liyun to fall through the cracks.

What makes the film so touching is the nuanced shading of each character, too many and too complex to list in such a short review. Even the biggest proponents of the Communist regime, those forced to implement the strictest parts of their policies, are not demonised. Instead they are seen as victims of the system themselves, only coming to terms with their sheer cruelty decades later. It would’ve been easy for Xiaoshuai Wang to have lost sense of his vision over such a long runtime, but the direction is incredibly smooth, bringing everything to a head for a brilliant final scene with shades of Edward Yang’s best work.

“Auld Lang Syne” plays throughout the film, appearing first as a simple string melody, yet reappearing in both song and piano form. Like that song, which can seem both happy and sad at the same time, So Long, My Son, finds that sweet spot between tragedy and comedy, eventually finding a magical, bittersweet resolution that is so rare in modern cinema.

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