The powerful slowness of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son

This is a movie that dares to leave its audience in the dark.

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There is enough incident and drama during the three hours of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son to fill an entire shelf of Victorian novels. The picture begins with a terrible accident – a ten-year-old boy drowns while playing in a reservoir – and goes on to feature a handful of troublesome pregnancies, a deathbed reunion, infidelity, abortion, adoption, a flood and the unburdening of a corrosive and long-held secret, all while documenting the upheavals taking place across the whole of China, from the late 1970s to the present day.

What makes the film distinctive, though, is not the shopping list of plot-points or even its focus on this catastrophic period in Chinese history, which overlaps slightly with Jia Zhangke’s masterful Platform. Its power lies in the non-chronological structure, as well as the tantalising slowness with which vital information is revealed; this is a movie that dares to leave its audience in the dark for long stretches, trusting that we will wait to discover connections between allegiances and betrayals that are opaque and often separated by decades. “Man plans, God laughs,” remarks one character, and there’s a similar philosophy at play in the film, which challenges the notion that we can ever hold all the pieces of the puzzle at one time. In the most ravishing shot, the camera is positioned outside in the snow, gazing at a fogged window behind which a family gathering is reduced to a jumble of slow-moving blurs. We have no idea what’s going on in there but we crave a closer look.

Take that initial drowning: we know that the boy who perished was named Liu Xing, and we saw his limp body being ferried to the hospital by his father, Yaojun (Wang Jingchun). So how can it be that one of the first scenes immediately after Liu Xing’s death shows Yaojun and his wife Liyun (Yong Mei) arguing some years later with their rebellious teenage son, who is named… Liu Xing? Perhaps the boy didn’t die at all. Perhaps another child was stolen or adopted to take his place. Could it be that all bets are off and we are in the realm of fantasy or delusion? Any film which begins with a child dead in the water and then proceeds to flash back and forth in time without warning (with faint echoes of Don’t Look Now) can’t help but invite our macabre speculation. This story, though, turns out to be tragic in ways that exclude the sinister and the supernatural.

The Communist Party’s one-child policy, implemented to help facilitate economic prosperity, was responsible for Yaojun and Liyun losing a baby that they had conceived accidentally. Had Liyun not been forced by her party representative at the factory to undergo a termination, she would have already been a mother to a second child, one that might have consoled her in the wake of Liu Xing’s death. And had the procedure not left her unable to conceive again, she would have
the possibility, at least, of continuing her family.

As it is, she and Yaojun have no further options. They decide to relocate to Fujian province, where their inability to speak the dialect leaves them isolated with their sadness, strangers in their own country. The groans of passing ships and the honks of distant traffic suggest that life is going on elsewhere.

Information is rationed by the screenplay, which Wang co-wrote with Ah Mei, on something less than a need-to-know basis, so that we usually perceive the melancholy nature of a scene long before we comprehend the source of the emotion. It’s clear that the young Liu Xing’s friend Shen Hao is mixed up in the accident at the start of the film, and that this boy’s parents, who work at the same factory as Yaojun and Liyun, feel some responsibility for what occurred.

But the relationship of those four adults pre-dates the child’s death, and there are conflicts and tensions reaching far back into the past. We witness the arrival at the factory of Shen Hao’s young aunt, Moli (Qi Xi), and the spark between her and Yaojun. We also meet a hedonistic mutual friend (Zhao Yanguozhang) who was locked up during a crackdown on “debauchery” after being caught playing disco music at a party – not an offence that should be punishable by imprisonment, whatever your opinion of Boney M.

Dong Yingda’s cello and piano score, interspersed with the occasional excerpt of “Auld Lang Syne”, provides effective support, but Wang knows when to strip a moment back to its bones, such as in the patient, powerful confession scene near the end of the movie, conducted without music and with only one cut. “Time stopped for us long ago,” Liyun says. “Now we’re just waiting to grow old.” But what So Long, My Son demonstrates in its controlled anger and its late-blossoming sense of hope is that time never stops, no matter how old you get. It keeps rushing in from every direction, surging like the floodwater that fills Yaojun and Liyun’s house, leaving forgotten family portraits floating on the surface, dredged up from the bottoms of cupboards and the depths of memory. 

So Long, My Son (12A)
dir: Wang Xiaoshuai

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want