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So measured is the pacing, so sinuous the timeline, so understated the subtle ache of the performances that you don’t immediately realise that Wang Xiaoshuai’s exquisite three-hour drama has been performing the emotional equivalent of open-heart surgery on the audience since pretty much the first scene.
A member of China’s so-called “sixth generation” of directors, a group that has its roots in a naturalistic, neorealist tradition, Wang sprang to international prominence with Beijing Bicycle (2001), which paid homage to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. For So Long, My Son, which the director co-wrote with Ah Mei, and which unfolds over the course of three decades, the inspiration is drawn from closer to home. China’s recent history – the unforgiving one-child policy; the stinging tail end of the cultural revolution; the seismic shifts in worker status and security as the country lurched from communism to a market economy – is explored through an intimate focus on two couples, linked first by friendship and later by tragedy.
It’s the tragedy that is revealed first. Two boys watch as older children cavort at the edge of a reservoir. One longs to join in; the other, fearful, remains behind. A short time later, the camera lingers at a respectful distance as we see parents Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Yong Mei) rush to the water’s edge to haul the lifeless body of their son on to the bank. Likewise, their desperation and desolation in the hospital is captured with a wide shot, placing the grieving couple at the end of an oppressive corridor.
Threading back and forward, weaving together buoyant celebration and needle pricks of sadness, both before and after the tragedy, the film elegantly pieces together a portrait of a couple, their adopted child and the family whose fate is tied to theirs. The repeated motif of an instrumental version of Auld Lang Syne should be hokey but somehow steeps the picture in a kind of luxuriant sadness and resignation. It’s a gorgeous, melancholy masterpiece.
Source: The Guardian
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