To say I was blown away is an understatement. Spanning three generations of family and the tumultuous shifts of history from The Cultural Revolution to the One-child policy to the rapid economic expansion of modern China, this is a staggering film that is at once intensely personal and tremendously steeped in the wider socio-economic forces at play. At every step of the way, the film accurately captures the brutality of bureaucracy on Chinese lives, the dehumanization of community over three generations and the turmoil of internal rebellion. The devastation of China’s One-child policy permeates this intimate portrait of family and guilt, where individual agency and personhood are excruciatingly connected to and shattered by the brutal hegemony of public interest. So Long My Son is heart-wrenching; This is a truly staggering film.
Wang XiaoShuai’s illuminating odyssey of life in China is breathtakingly beautiful and tragic, personal and public and so textural in its approach. Jumping between past and present where the two often transition seamlessly between each other, the film has something to say about the unforgivable passage of time. At its most potent, a lingering melancholic mood of time lost and the decay of those left behind by life’s tragedies adds to the transient nature of life. One of the characters in the film utters, ‘I feel as if we’ve already lived our life, now we’re only waiting for time to pass.’ Rocked by the tragedy of losing a son, two families and friends have to reckon with the intense personal tribulations in the face of even greater nationalistic shifts in China. This intense struggle to retain some form of agency in the increasingly alienating and depersonalizing monoliths of China’s industrial and capitalist workings form the backdrop of this melancholic tale. The juxtaposition of rural landscape with the brutalist skyscrapers of a modernizing China so essentially capture the rapid shifts that inevitably leave many behind. Scenes that capture the essence of people and things caught in constant flux; The inescapable drone of moving gears, prolonged scenes protest, symbols of growth and relics of personal past in dialogue and imagery characterize the haunting omniscience of personhood under siege.
I was blown away, in equal measure, by the acting on display. Portraying characters through generations of change and tragedy, these characters were heart-breaking to watch. At their best, portraits of joy and heartbreak within the constant struggle of life were so brilliantly illuminated. This is an extremely long film but I was transfixed from start to finish and emotionally invested at every step of the way. To lay praise in words is futile; I was in tears for most of the film. It is the only film where I can’t remember which scenes I did not at least shed a tear. Wang Jing Chun and Mei Yong power the heart of this moving masterpiece with absolutely fantastic performances from supporting characters who were able to show both the internal struggle that is public but also the wider struggle that indelibly shapes the individual within.
In the end, it would be a disservice to the film and a meaningless task to give even shreds of narrative analysis. Few films have been so skillful in capturing both the vast expanse of history and the small joys and struggles within the mundanity of its characters. In one of the most subtle yet powerful scenes, a new year’s celebration is about to take place. Coloured with the vivid reddish hues of night markets and the cascading snowfall as children light firecrackers, the main couple is being visited by a family friend who contemplate in bittersweet silence as firecrackers from outside illuminate their living room. It is awash with celebration and colour, yet XiaoShuai so brilliantly paints the hollow existence of a couple still reeling in heartbreak. Punctured by the flashing colours and banging sounds of exterior celebration, the fragmentation of the past and present and future is never more discordant,ironically, than in the disquieting stillness of the interior.
In the end, So Long My Son is a staggering panorama of life throughout China’s history and an intensely human portrait of grief, loss, and struggle. Most of all, a melancholic sense of time’s inevitability and evanescence compounded by the uncompromising monoliths of nationalistic priorities cast an alienating portrait of individual struggle. The heartbreaking struggle to maintain person-hood in a space where public concerns are so intertwined with individual agency is so tenderly and hauntingly explored here. But no matter the struggle, So Long My Son is essentially of the people and for the people. With an empathetic approach, So Long My Son is a masterpiece of a film that never shys away from the tribulations of life yet champions the affirmation of life itself. This is one of the best films I have ever seen.