FC@Berlin 2019, Dispatch 10 – A superb melodrama woven around China’s one-child policy

Posted on February 18, 2019

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Read the full article on Film Companion, here: https://www.filmcompanion.in/berlin-film-festival-2019-review-so-long-my-son-baradwaj-rangan

Plus loneliness in Brazil, angst in Russia, dreams in China, zombies in Austria.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a masterclass on how a melodramatic story need not necessarily make for a melodramatic film. Consider the hyper-hysterical building blocks of this sweeping narrative: the death of a son (reminiscent of the traumatic accident in Ordinary People), an extramarital affair, factory workers being laid off, a deadly disease (a tumour that swells like the secret that forms the big reveal at the end). But all this event is leavened by the gentle upheavals in China. Looking out of the window of a cab, Liyun (Yong Mei) — who is returning to the city she used to live in — remarks, “There is no trace of our past.” As if on cue, we see a flash of the McDonald’s golden arches sign, a fleeting glimpse of one of the many ways in which there is little trace of Liyun’s past. The film is filled with these markers: the TOEFL exam, Boney-M, the 1970s Cultural Revolution, new ID cards with a chip installed, housing developments, and, of course, Mickey Mouse.

It’s not just in terms of length that the three-hour So Long, My Son is reminiscent of Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (which ran almost four hours). It’s also the gentle immersiveness in a changing culture, a changing landscape. The unobtrusive camera hovers outside doors, as though eavesdropping on some three decades of a family’s trauma resulting from the Communist Party’s one-child policy. And the screenplay slips across time — past and present — in a pattern that is at once a little confusing but also indicative of how the price paid by individuals (in relation to a government’s draconian policies) isn’t always evident at first. Liyun and her husband, Yaojun (Wang Jingchun), are practically symbols for the oppressed, those who weren’t enterprising enough to cash in on the country’s ensuing economic boom. So Long, My Son takes its time to build, but the pieces come together very satisfyingly — the final portions are enormously moving. The farewell in the title isn’t just for a person. It’s for a time that even outsiders couldn’t have expected to feel so strongly about.

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Posted in: Film Festivals