The final competition film at the 69th Berlinale, Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s sprawling family drama SO LONG, MY SON, screened earlier today and it absolutely broke me. For a festival lineup that did not lack distinctive, adventurous forms of cinematic expression or strong political statements, it brings a welcome dose of pure, unadulterated emotion that clears the tear duct and warms the heart. Depending on how well the cultural references translate for the jury led by Juliette Binoche, it could feature on the winner’s list in any number of ways.
The decades-spanning film opens modestly enough, as we watch two young boys Xing Xing and Hao Hao deciding whether to join the other kids in the water. Unbeknown to us then, the incident would result in a tragedy that nearly destroys Xing Xing’s parents Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Yong Mei). From there on the story jumps between different points in time to reconstruct an even sadder history that connects the two boys’ families from the 1980’s til today. In the process, it paints a picture of a drastically changed country whose past cruelties are beginning to catch up with its people a generation later.
Using an intricately woven family epic to address universal themes of loss, regret and forgiveness while reflecting on the ever-evolving Middle Kingdom, Wang’s screenplay is a tremendous achievement. As I pointed out at the start of the festival, the best political movies bring politics back to the human level, and that is exactly what SO LONG, MY SON did. Be it the centralized crackdown on crime, the one-child-policy or Mao’s Cultural Revolution, politics are never just abstract, theoretical trade-offs. They have real consequences, paid for often with lives and blood. In this case, you see how China’s merciless population control caused misfortunes so great they led to desperate reactions that turned out to be just as unfortunate. Written with a deep, judgment-free understanding of human nature, the screenplay depicts characters making shocking, despicable, perhaps even immoral decisions, but at no point do they seem the least bit implausible – you know you’d have done exactly the same thing.
The film’s excellent editing also plays an integral part in the storytelling. Without ever specifying the respective time period of the events portrayed on screen, the movie unfolds almost like a mystery as the audience is required to figure out the chronological order of things and its narrative/emotional significance. Obviously films are always made in the editing room, but here the editorial choices add an entire layer to the viewing experience, approximating with clear-eyed precision the chaotic, confused fates of the characters without ever leaving a bad taste of cheap stunts.
The ensemble cast is quite wonderful, most notably Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei, as well as Ai Liya who plays Hao Hao’s mother Haiyan, and Qi Xi who plays the key supporting role of Hao Hao’s aunt Moli. Each of them plays someone who has to live with a lifetime of guilt/pain, and as movingly as they render those scenes of breakdown and despair, it’s in moments of content, unprotesting quietude that their performances really come alive and destroy you.
The Chinese original title of SO LONG, MY SON is a traditional expression describing a state of eternity. Used here, in a story where literally nothing lasts – not the friendships, not the love and certainly not the places that witnessed it all – it captures the tragic elegance of the material beautifully. Not nearly as tragic but equally elegant is 23-year-old Chinese writer/director Zhu Xin’s feature debut VANISHING DAYS, which screened in the Forum sidebar of Berlinale showcasing unconventional voices in filmmaking.
The strange, slippery film is hard to synopsize as it follows a fragmented, entrancingly illogical narrative structure. After a brief opening sequence that sets up the hot, rainy southern China setting with its mythical lakes and forests, we meet 14-year-old Senlin, who seems like a perfectly nice girl with a penchant for roller-skating. The day a long-lost friend of her parents comes visit, Senlin’s turtle also goes missing. Thus begins an increasingly bizarre odyssey at the end of which you find yourself submerged in the realm of memory/dreams.
I wouldn’t purport to know what exactly VANISHING DAYS is about. After a while it becomes hard to even tell if Senlin is actually the roller-skating girl at all. Or perhaps her parents’ dead son is the real Senlin and she is in fact the daughter of the visiting aunt who may or may not recognize her? Zhu’s screenplay doesn’t do exposition and consciously plays with the viewer’s perception. While I don’t think it has the level of sophistication to base a truly outstanding mindfuck movie on, this is also much more of a director’s than a writer’s film. And Zhu’s direction has potential written all over it.
In many ways reminiscent of Chinese auteur Bi Gan and Thai Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Zhu tells the story with confident repose and superb stylistic command. His cinematic language is one of codes, atmosphere and heightened surrealism, enabled in part by the often wooden acting of the apparently untrained cast. Combined with an unerring eye for effective, arresting composition, it lulls you into a near-hypnotized state and triggers a slew of visceral reactions that probably differ from person to person.
For me this film speaks to the things we’ve lost or forgotten. It tries to conjure those echoes of memories that you’re not sure are real. And in the hands of a fearless young talent, it rises above its micro-budget production to evoke something ancient and grand.
Film festivals should not just be about red carpets and celebrating established artists. Here’s hoping the Berlinale will keep up the good work and offer brave new voices from around the world a platform they deserve.