Already being tipped by some sources as the most beautiful movie in Berlin this year, “So Long, My Son” is Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s biggest film to date. Biggest in terms of ambition, budget and scale.
He sets out to chronicle 40 years of Chinese economic development and to tell the personal stories of two groups of friends. The protagonists are also metaphors for the pain that comes with leaving things behind.
Wang, who has won awards a previous Berlin Film Festivals with “Beijing Bicycle” (2001) and “In Love We Trust” (2008), says that “So Long” picks up on similar themes to his earlier films, notably youth. But it is different in that this time he considers himself to be more of an observer. He says he is trying to reconcile the people and attitudes of his father’s era and the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution with today’s generation, who may have less interest in the past, but are nevertheless shaped by it.
“It is a big film in that it covers large stretches of space and time, moving from the 1980s to the present, and from the North to the South of China,” Wang told Variety. And like fellow auteur Jia Zhangke, who last year delivered his own multi-decade chronicle in “Ash Is Purest White,” Wang had to rebuild settings and locations. “China is changing so fast that it is really hard to find the old things my movie required.”
But above all, “So Long” is a big film in that it makes China’s so-called one child policy as its central theme. For many years, the policy has been dangerous, and sensitive for filmmakers, and a red flag for China’s censors.
The policy was intended to limit China’s population growth through strict controls. Over its 36 years (1979-2016), it is claimed to have prevented more than 400 million births.
Its consequences on a macro scale are vast and long-lasting. As a direct result, China now has a rapidly aging population. An indirect effect is a crushing gender imbalance, as families have attempted selective abortions. Demographers calculate that the policy may take another 50 years to unwind.
Policy impact on a personal level is also magnified in the case of a child’s death. In “So Long” the circumstances of the death of one family’s child are hushed up for decades. While, in a second family, an enforced abortion renders the woman permanently infertile. “Individual stories can function as microcosms of societal change at a larger scale,” says Wang.
Sources at the Berlin festival have expressed their delight in being able to select the film, and their surprise in that it received the Dragon Seal, mark of censorship approval, and a permit to premiere overseas.
Wang is considered as a leading light of China’s so-called sixth generation directors – meaning the middle-aged auteurs who are younger than Zhang Yimou’s generation, but a decade older that the creators now powering up the box office. He says it is his clique’s “duty to keep observing” and that they should pass on their expertise.
Despite the very much more commercial turn that the Chinese film industry has taken over the past six years – Wang says many filmmakers are aping Hollywood and Hong Kong styles – he refuses to find fault. “The last two decades are a new start for the Chinese film industry. Many new things happen each year,” Wang says. “These advances will help audiences become more open-minded to all kind of cinema.”
Wang points to commercial pressures as having a greater impact on Chinese filmmaking than top-down censorship. “Censorship is an eternal problem. It has been with us, but it won’t stop creativity, or Chinese filmmakers showing their films in Berlin, Cannes or Venice,” he says. (Berlin suffered at least one other Chinese casualty this year, with the withdrawal of “Better Days,” about disaffected youth and a mysterious death, only last week.)
Since mid-2018, Chinese regulators have stepped into the entertainment industry on many fronts – for example, limiting individual talent salaries, changing tax codes and tightening the censorship regime to put increased emphasis on social harmony. These have increased uncertainty and caused a sharp production slowdown. “This is a very special phase of Chinese film industry development. We could call it ‘Capitalism with Chinese characteristics’,” said Wang.