The airplane runs into turbulence, the seatbelt announcement sounds, and Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Liyun (Yong Mei) automatically clutch hands. The rough air passes, the craft steadies and their hands unclasp. “Isn’t it funny,” says Liyun, whose hair is finally graying at the temples, but whose unlined face has been made somehow more serene by sadness, “that we are still afraid of dying?”
Sixth Generation Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s utterly wrenching, decades-spanning intimate epic “So Long, My Son” has few enough such moments, in which the stoic characters talk about how they feel, much less overtly acknowledge their helplessness against fate or social engineering or air pressure or ideology or any of the other million uncontrollable forces bearing down on them as ordinary Chinese people living quietly at the end of the last century. And so when these moments come, they land like little bombs.
Wang is a filmmaker well-known to the Berlin competition, where “Beijing Bicycle” took the Jury Prize in 2001, and 2008’s “In Love We Trust” netted best screenplay (he also scored a Jury Prize from Cannes for “Shanghai Dreams”). But “So Long, My Son” is, thematically if not formally, his most ambitious project to date, and not just because it is his longest. At three-hours-plus, it may seem like an ungainly vessel, but it needs the heft to remain seaworthy across the swells and ebbs of more than three decades of Chinese history.
The film does not unfold chronologically — perhaps the most interesting formal choice Wang makes is to shape it so that the past and the present loop-the-loop with one another, which not only pulls tight the drawstrings between the old days and the new, but also allows for a more dynamic presentation. Even though adjoining scenes may have happened years apart, they are arranged so they’re cresting a similar emotional tide, so rather than the usual cantering, episodic rhythm of the epoch-spanning epic, the runtime flies by with the taut fluidity of traditional three-act structure.
Still, a chronological outline of the plot would have roughly the same beginning and endpoint. At a reservoir, Yaojun and Liyun’s little boy Xingxing is goaded into swimming by his friend Haohao, and drowns. Haohao’s guilt over the death stays with him, and infects his parents who were close friends with Yaojun and Liyun, long after the grieving pair leave their factory jobs, move away to a small Fujian town where they don’t even speak the dialect, and adopt an orphan boy. By 16, this boy (Wang Yuan) has become surly and ungovernable, doubtless in response to the impossible, unspoken ask that he replace a kid he never knew. He runs away.
Meanwhile Haohao’s parents become wealthy, but his mother Haiyan (Al Liya) harbors further inexpressible remorse over forcing Liyun to abort her second pregnancy in line with the government’s one-child diktat. Haohao’s pretty young aunt Moli (Qi xi) shares in the familial guilt, which, coupled with an infatuation with Yaojun leads her to a peculiar way of trying to make amends. Finally, all the way at the other end of her life, after decades of estrangement, Haiyan expresses the desire to see her old friends one more time, so Liyun and Yaojun get on that bumpy plane and return to the hometown that has changed so much, and to their old apartment that hasn’t changed at all, for a visit.
The social conscience common to many Sixth Generation filmmakers and the loose backdrop of (to quote the cliche) China’s economic miracle, remain. But the span of time across which Wang and co-writer A Mei tell their story allows us an impression of the tectonic shifts in society brought down to human level. Such changes as those brought about by the draconian, now-abandoned one-child policy, can often be invisible purely because they are so massive, because this is China and the numbers are so impersonally huge. But here we feel it, while Wang’s broad sweep also lends a long-view, elegiac tone to a story so packed with incident, and so criss-crossed with lines of guilt, grief, regret and remorse that in more telescoped form it would be pure melodrama.
That’s not to say it is kitchen-sink realism — Moli’s subplot, in particular, stretches credibility. But the shooting style is naturalistic and restrained, with DP Kim Hyun-seok’s largely handheld camerawork unobtrusive to the point of ordinary, presented in as neutral a manner as the dramaturgy allows. The score is sparingly, tastefully used, its recurring three-note piano refrain and instrumentalized “Auld Lang Syne” syringed of corniness. But most crucially, the performances are so empathetic and so rooted in the reality of even the most fraught situation, that contrivances feel more like natural coincidences.
Yong (who was also impressive in Hou Hsiaou-hsien’s “The Assassin”) is wonderful, her face a reflecting pool into which we read subtleties that a more demonstrative actress would miss. But the film’s greatest turn comes from Wang Jingchun as Yaojun. It’s in his ordinary goodness — not without its rages, deceptions and low-level alcoholism — that the film finds, then repeatedly breaks, your heart, before a subtly momentous finale which perhaps, after all the sorrow, is the happiest ending in recent memory: a reminder that for all that such decent people may ever lose in this life, so much will always remain.