11 Flowers: Toronto Review

A poignant if old school recollection of childhood experience during the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai evokes memories of provincial life prior to Mao's death.

HONG KONG — 11 Flowers is Wang Xiaoshuai's bittersweet evocation of Chinese provincial life during the repressive ‘70s through the eyes of a boy who becomes an uncomprehending witness to a youth crime and its harsh consequences. Shot in a nostalgic, personal tone that suggests autobiographic origins (reinforced by the Chinese title "I Was 11"), the 6th generation director-writer's staidly-paced treatment may strike one as a throwback to 5th Generation cinema and "Scars Literature" depicting the stifling milieu of the Cultural Revolution. Still it benefits from Wang's mastery of narrative innuendo and his lucid, unsentimental observation. Reminiscent of film adaptations of Marcel Pagnol's novels,it should resonate with a quasi-art-house audience as reassuringly humanist.

The film is set in rural town in southwest China in 1975, a year before Mao's death, unfolding via the subjective view of 11-year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing). Although the days seem carefree for boys like him, deprivations of that era are softly insinuated from the outset. When Han is appointed school gym leader and told to wear a new shirt, it raises a family furor because that would eat up a year's cloth ration. A symbol of soiled innocence, the shirt eventually plays a pivotal role in his encounter with Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), a teenage fugitive hiding in the woods.

Jueqiang's crime, as well as the tragedy that befalls his sister Juehong (Mo Shiyi) are tactfully implied, as are the telltale signs of violence and repressiveness in daily life, such as the savage gang wars between Red Guards and ideological struggles at work that injure and trouble Han's father (Wang Jingchun).

Shot in Chongqing, 11 Flowersnot only shares the same location as Wang'sShanghai Dreams and Chongqing Blues,some of their themes also re-emerge, namely the frustration and disillusionment of intellectuals who are "sent down" from cities to work in rural collectives, and the anguish of youth in a society blind to injustice and intolerant of protest. In Wang's rendering of a generation that meekly internalizes pain and disillusionment, what haunts one most is the outsider's sense of impotence in the face of a fellow human's misfortune, emphasized by Han's blurred, half-comprehending vision: P.O.V. shots show him seeing things underwater, through bathhouse steam, from atop a hill or through a thicket. Fortunately, more than in his other films, Wang allows greater warmth to suffuse family relations (enhanced by the old-world Gaulic accordion music), especially during time Han spends alone with his Quixotic, art-loving father.

Even with a young cast, not a single actor can be tasked for being over-demonstrative. Except for ballsy comedienne Yan Ni'sunrecognizably down-to-earth presence as an irascible but loving mother, the film suffers from lack of emotionally charged central performances. Meticulous artistic standards ensure the period's drab, frugal lifestyle is convincingly recreated, counter-posed by a majestic mountain backdrop.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Sales: Film Distribution
Production companies: WXS Productions, Chinese Shadows, Full House present a co-production with Art France Cinéma, in association with Film Distribution
Cast: Liu Wenqing, Yan Ni, Wang Buqu, Mo Shiyi, Wang Ziyi, Cao Shiping
Director-screenwriter: Wang Xiaoshuai
Producers: Wang Xiaoshuai, Isabelle Glachant, Didar Domehri
Produced by: Lv Dong, Laurent Baudens, Gael Nouaille
Director-of-photography: Dong Jinsong
Production/costume designer: Lv Dong
Music: Marc Parrone
Editor: Nelly Quettier
No rating, 110 minutes