So Long, My Son (4 stars)

So Long, My Son

Epic and intimate Chinese drama from Wang Xiaoshuai, focusing on a family's anguish

Taking in nearly 40 years of life in Mainland China, from the 1980s to the present day, and with a three-hour running time, Wang Xiaoshuai's So Long, My Son is epic both in scope and prospect. Yet the Beijing Bicycle filmmaker has brought an astonishing sense of intimacy and lightness of touch to his sweeping drama. While its structure is challenging – the narrative ducks back and forth in time, for brief moments or long sequences – the storytelling is so involving that it doesn't take long to sink into its rhythms.

A huge part of that is down to the commanding central performances from Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, who both won acting awards at this year's Berlin Film Festival. They are married couple Yaojun and Liyun who, when we first meet them, enjoy a modest but happy life with their young son Xingxing in 1980s China, until the boy tragically drowns while playing with friends.

When next we see them, they are eking out an existence in a rundown harbour, surprisingly with the surly, now-teenage Xingxing (Wang Yuan) in tow. As the gaps are filled in by regular flashbacks – to the time when Liyun was forced into a state abortion when she fell pregnant with her second child, to the revelation of who the teenage Xingxing really is – a knotty picture emerges of lives shaped by secrets and lies.

Working with cinematographer Kim Hyunseok, Wang captures the dramatic changes that befall the family, and China at large, with a candid, observational eye that maintains a respectful distance at key moments, yet keeps its focus tight and unflinching. As befits such a restrained approach, use of music is minimal – although 'Auld Lang Syne' (known in China as 'The Friendship Song') is a repeated refrain – while Lee Chatametikool's expert editing avoids theatrics while stitching these time-shifts together into one remarkable family saga.

It's through these everyday experiences that So Long, My Son makes its points without the need for soapbox or lectern. The resigned slump of factory workers, the dance parties held in dangerous secret, the occasional explosion of emotion tell us what we need to know about the suffocating restrictions of living in an authoritarian state, where tradition has always trumped happiness and, crucially, the misery wrought by China's long-standing one child policy.

This is a tumultuous, wrenching watch, with many scenes – including the bookended moments of Xingxing's tragic death, seen in extreme long-shot, and a confession that plays out in Yaojun and Liyun's old apartment, the camera focusing closely on their reaction – that are quite simply devastating. Yet the film ends on a truly uplifting note that, despite it all, speaks of hope for the future, of modern China's power to change, and of the sheer resilience of the human spirit.

Limited release from Fri 6 Dec.

So Long, My Son

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • China
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Xiaoshuai Wang
  • Cast: Liya Ai, Jiang Du, Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang
  • UK release: 6 December 2019

Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Yong Mei) are a married couple whose son drowns while playing with friends. Epic drama of 40 years of Chinese life, with a candid, observational eye; tumultuous and wrenching but ultimately an uplifting tale of the resilience of the humans spirit.