Film Review: ‘So Long, My Son’ Poignantly Grieves For The Loss Of Could-Have-Been Sons4 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Factory workers Yao-Jun and Li-Yun are a couple navigating the tumultuous years of the regime’s new policies and reforms in the midst of radical political and cultural transformation in China. A family disaster strikes, which changes the rest of their lives.
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Cast: Wang Jing-Chun, Yong Mei, Qi Xi, Roy Wang, Du Jiang
Runtime: 185 minutes
Implemented in 1980, the Chinese Communist Party’s national one-child policy continues to remain one of the most controversial topics in China today. It has destroyed the lives of millions of women in the countryside with forced abortions and sterilisations, and has landed many activists and journalists, who worked to expose the policy’s inhumane treatment, in jail.
So Long, My Son 《地久天长》surprisingly passed the regime’s strict censorship test despite its crosshairs set on the one-child policy. Remarkably, the film also won awards at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, the Brussels International Film Festival, and even emerged as the biggest winner in the 32nd edition of China’s Golden Rooster Awards
The film was directed and written by Wang Xiaoshuai who grew up during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) and has used film as a medium for investigating the troubling periods of his country’s history. He is part of the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese cinema, often characterised by films charting the country’s rapid transformation following vast economic reforms.
So Long, My Son expresses a couple’s deep-seated grief when they lose their only son amidst the seemingly cruel and indifferent pace of China’s modernisation. Landscapes of shabby communal apartments and living quarters morph into privately-owned luxurious high-rise apartments. Everything speeds up and moves on — yet the grief of the couple remains as raw as the day they lost their son.
The film takes a look behind the curtains of China’s current prosperity and reveals the emotional distress and pain that lurk backstage. The couple’s sorrow is communicated through the silence, tension and unspoken sadness they share, eating away as they withdraw themselves from the world and draw in towards themselves. This drawn-out grief confronts viewers to carry with them their sorrows and burdens; your heart aches along with theirs.
Tonally, this is balanced with the celebration of friendship. Auld Lang Syne is featured multiple times in the film and highlights the precious familial friendship the couple shares with their friends. Although the course of their close-knitted kinship grows complicated and is swayed by their immediate political circumstances, bygones become bygones in the name of friendship and reunification at the end of the day. Dining table and meal scenes are also endearingly used as markers of the stages of both friendship and estrangement throughout the film as they change in dynamic and size as time passes.
Wang Jing-Chun and Yong Mei, who play the main couple, put up an infectiously affecting performance. Their emotions emanate in accumulative building blocks that tug at your heartstrings, effortlessly drawing sympathy for their characters’ unbearable grief.
The film’s non-linear progression asks you to empathise with the couple’s struggles as viewers are asked to reassemble their past and fill in the gaps. The sorrow only grows with each new discovery, culminating in an emotional connection with the characters built through subtle, epiphanic waves.
Director Wang’s occasional use of both wide-framed and landscape shots further emphasise the couple’s desolation — both emotionally and physically, as they seemingly walk through their grief alone. The expanse and silence are their only companions while the rest of China successfully progresses. Them being left behind is also starkly accentuated by their move from the countryside in Fujian province to the congested streets of a now-capitalistic Beijing. It is as if they have stepped through a time portal.
This film deserves all the recognition for the recreation of a 1970s and 1980s China. With the majority of China’s historical architectural landscape demolished, Wang successfully recreated the atmosphere of an industrial China with proletarian bicycles, factories, undeveloped hospitals and Mao suits. Almost every scene in this film is a piece of contemporary realism, a style that is prevalent with the works of other ‘Sixth Generation’ filmmakers.
So Long, My Son brings comfort to those who have suffered as the couple had. But as one of the few voices that have emerged in the public discussing the controversial one-child policy, it is also a piece of China’s history that has now been forever acknowledged and memorialised through film.
The award-winning film is now available for streaming on The Projector Plus.