'So Long, My Son' ('Di Jiu Tian Chang'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A three-hour family drama with far-reaching repercussions.

Wang Xiaoshuai ('Beijing Bicycles') examines the lasting damage done by China’s one-child policy and the Cultural Revolution.

When a Chinese couple living during the 1970s Cultural Revolution lose their only son in an accident, circumstances provide them with a problematic substitute in So Long, My Son (Di Jiu Tian Chang), a long, leisurely drama directed with self-assurance by Wang Xiaoshuai. The story is an intimate one, yet it embraces a large cast of characters who reflect the immense changes that have swept China over the last 50 years.

Without ever seeming like a sociological study, the screenplay (co-written by Wang and A Mei) reveals the devastating long-term effects of the Communist Party’s one-child policy. It also shows the resilience of those Chinese who lived through the terrible decade of the Cultural Revolution with its executions, forced abortions and imprisonment for offenses like playing Western music, and who were later able to recover their faith in life. More than simply proposing that time heals all wounds, the film’s final scenes make a deep bow to the human spirit.

Both of Wang's previous Berlin competition entries went home with awards — Beijing Bicycle won the grand jury prize in 2001 and In Love We Trust took screenplay kudos in 2008 — and it is very likely that the historical importance of this film will also be recognized by the jury. But considering a running time over three hours and the unspectacular approach taken to what is really a very Chinese story, the commercial outlook is less promising than for the director's more compact, easy-to-assimilate dramas.

Tragedy strikes almost as soon as the story begins. At a lonely reservoir, a bunch of excited young boys have gone swimming on a hot day. Only one, Xingxing, waits on a hill. No matter how much his best friend Haohao begs him, he refuses to go into the water because he can’t swim. But soon his father Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and mother Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) are running screaming to the shore to gather his lifeless little body in their arms.

Surprise: Though it’s clear the little boy has drowned, in the next scene an older, 15-year-old Xing (Wang Yuan) is living with his parents in a southern coastal town. Their home is now a humble shack on the port, where Yaojun does repair work. Xing has grown into a sullen, rebellious young teen who cuts school and disobeys orders. When he runs away from home one day, the (partial) truth comes out: He is an adopted child.

The entire film is cleverly constructed out of flashbacks to the 1970s and '80s that tell the characters’ backstories a little at a time. At that time, Yaojun, a former teacher, and his wife Liyun worked in an oppressive old factory in a northern city and lived in the factory dormitory. Down the hall from them are several good friends, who include Haohao’s parents. Xingxing is a still alive.

The key incident in this period is that Liyun becomes pregnant with their second child. Her supervisor at the factory first scolds the couple, then announces an ambulance is on the way to take her to the hospital. Yaojun is powerless to stop her from being forced into an abortion. She almost dies and leaves the hospital knowing she’ll never conceive again. Much to their chagrin, they are named Achievers of the Year at the factory for setting the example of a one-child family.

A little later, another life is conceived by Yaojun’s former teaching assistant, Moli (Qi Xi). This pretty, sophisticated girl has landed a good job and is about to move abroad. But first she seduces her old teacher to satisfy a whim. That single time is enough to get her pregnant. Rather cruelly, she leaves it up to poor Yaojun to decide whether she should abort the baby, or give it to him and Liyun to raise. Obviously the baby is Xing, who goes to live with the bereaved parents and becomes an unacknowledged stand-in for their lost Xingxing. How much Liyun knows about the baby’s origins is not immediately clear.

This is a very long story and the first half, in which we get to know the characters, is the most engrossing. The pic’s last hour loses some of its fascination as it moves forward into the period of China’s market economy and the economic boom. Some of the characters have become rich and moved up the social ladder; others have wasted away, unable to catch the rhythms of the future or overcome the traumas of the past. Reunited at a funeral, these survivors reveal to each other some final secrets, and the movie ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note. 

A masterful editing job from Lee Chatametikool helps Wang skillfully bring all the private and socio-political threads together in an accessible story, and the script can be forgiven for sometimes withholding crucial information until it's ready to divulge it. Whereas other films have revealed the shocking horrors of the death camps, here the scenes set during the Cultural Revolution are relatively restrained. So Long, My Son is more interested in showing the steep personal price individuals paid, which affected the rest of their lives. For the most part, Wang and his actors shun melodrama and sidestep poignancy. Xingxing’s death is shot in extreme long shot, for example, leaving only hysterical voices to clue us in.

As the father, Wang Jingchun is solid as a rock, which makes his emotional outbursts all the more shocking. His sorrows may have led him to become a hard-drinking man, but he remains morally upright and protective of his apparently more fragile wife. Yong Mei’s mother is a perceptive woman of few words, deeply wounded but, like her husband, strong enough to accept what life doles out.

Production companies: Dongchung Films, Hehe Pictures, FunShow Culture, Communication Beijing, ZhengFu Pictures  
Cast: Wang Jingchun (Liu Yaojun), Yong Mei (Wang Liyun) Qi Xi (Shen Moli), Wang Yuan (Liu Xing)
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Screenwriters: A Mei, Wang Xiaoshuai
Producers: Liu Xuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Yang Wei, Wang Hai, Han Jianv
Director of photography: Kim Hyung-seok
Production designer: Lv Dong
Costume designer: Pang Yan
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Music: Dong Yingda
Casting director: Feng Lei
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: The Match Factory

180 minutes