An absorbing coming-of-age drama set during the waning stage of China’s Cultural Revolution, “11 Flowers” takes its place among Wang Xiaoshuai’s finest films. In dramatizing a curious chapter from his own rural upbringing, the Sixth Generation helmer supplies a personal perspective on a restless and confusing period, balancing a momentous historical context with a stirring evocation of childhood. While Wang’s international audience remains confined to the upper end of the specialty market, favorable reviews could help this understated but highly accessible Chinese-French co-production blossom offshore.
Though the exact year is never specified, one can infer from a black-and-white prologue that the film is set in 1975, a year before the deaths of Mao Tsetung and premier Zhou Enlai signaled an end to the Cultural Revolution. Wang’s focus here is on the countless mainlanders ordered by Mao to leave China’s major port cities and work at factories in impoverished rural areas, shoring up the nation’s inland defenses against possible attack by the Soviet Union. The helmer previously engaged this subject in his ’80s-set drama “Shanghai Dreams” (2005), to which “11 Flowers” serves as a companion piece and prequel of sorts, centered around a family living in a tiny riverfront village in Guizhou province.
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Without tilting into miserablism, the early scenes are marked by an almost Dickensian sense of privation, observing the family’s attempts to make ends meet and remain cheerful under the circumstances. With his father (Wang Jingchun) working at the factory, 11-year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) is often left with his mother (Yan Ni) and younger sister (Zhao Shiqi). Trouble arises when the boy is chosen to lead exercise routines at school, a task for which he needs a new shirt. Though his mother refuses to spend a year’s worth of fabric coupons on such a luxury, she eventually agrees.
One afternoon, while playing in the river with his buddies, Wang Han suddenly passes out, only to find the shirt missing when he comes to. Driving away his friends with accusations that one of them stole it, the boy suddenly finds himself in the blood-stained path of Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), a young man on the run from police. Wang Han’s fate becomes intertwined with that of the fugitive, who is wanted for killing a man and attempting to blow up the factory.
As scripted by the helmer and Lao Ni, there’s an almost surreal quality to this narrative progression; everything that happens after Wang Han loses consciousness could be taking place in a suspended dream-state. China itself seems lost in a collective daze as it marches toward an unsettled and unsettling future, one where rumors of conspiracy are always on the horizon and the police maintain only tenuous control over local gang activity. D.p. Dong Jinsong continually frames images through a suggestive haze: the steam of a bathhouse where Wang Han eavesdrops on gossip, or the window frost through which he and his parents catch a glimpse of two souls immeasurably worse off than they are.
Pic renders a rich sense of time, place and historical detail without abandoning its moppet’s-eye perspective; if some of the events seem to rush past before one can fully grasp their import, a certain degree of childlike incomprehension feels entirely appropriate. The film’s tone is by turns wistful, hopeful and at times even funny, thanks largely to the energetic clowning of Wang Han’s buddies (pro tyke thesps Zhang Kexuan, Zhong Guo Liuxing and Lou Yihao), who provide not only comic relief but also a sense of the universal.
Liu makes a soulful impression as a spirited, mischievous but well-raised kid, and as a pint-sized stand-in for the director. Wang Jingchun is a gruff but affable presence as the boy’s father, who attempts to instill a love of art by teaching his son to paint, while Yan vigorously conveys anger and affection as a mother who works hard to do right by her children, yet is unable to contain her rage at the slightest sign of ingratitude.
Jinsong’s limpid images capture the bleak beauty of Wang Han’s provincial town, from the treacherous riverbank to the block housing whose rough conditions nonetheless foster a strong sense of community. Chinese title translates as “I Am 11.”