So Long, My Son (地久天长 ) is one of the most monumental and emotionally powerful works of new Chinese cinema. The translation in Chinese would be something like «to wish an enduring friendship or love, both ephemeral by nature», «to be long lasting as the universe; to be long lived as the earth».
Wang Xiaoshuai establishes himself with his second film as the more than deserved heir to the cinema of Jia Zhang-Ke with this extraordinary work of more than three hours about the story of a Chinese family in transition from the cultural revolution to the end of communism with the start of Deng Xiaoping economic reforms.
Wang Xiaoshuai and the 6th Generation of Chinese Filmmakers
Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the prominent figures, together with Zhang Yuan, Jia Zhangke, and others, of what is now widely referred to as China’s «Sixth Generation» or «Urban Generation» directors.
«Fifth Generation» cinema directors (with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou as the most famous) were caught by the Cultural Revolution in their teens and sent to the countryside to learn from the people, watch their life conditions and bring them new technologies . Their cinema has an epic nature and is grounded in a historical-political setting dominated by the countryside.
Wang Xiaoshuai, like many other directors of the «Urban Generation,» is in his fifties and therefore did not have to face the total weight of the Cultural Revolution, but grew up and started creating during the years of China’s bustling economic reforms.
Being relatively free from the burdens of the Communist Revolution and the Cultural Revolution, he and his peers do not feel compelled to delve into the past. They focus their gaze on the present and the future of China and Chinese society. His films deal with a changing, contemporary China, using a more realistic, almost documentary style, airing problems, characters, and attitudes that were hardly present before, at least not explicitly in Chinese films.
So Long, My Son (地久天长), the film
History and life made art. This Chinese film is undoubtedly one of the outstanding achievements of Chinese cinema. It is not so often that cinema succeeds in making us witness the discourse of life, in reflecting through fiction a story big enough to make us feel that something has moved us inside, deep inside. «So long, my son» achieves this by taking us to China to tell us the story of two married couples who have always been friends, with two children of the same age. But focused on one of them: Yaoyun and Liyun.
Although the film focuses on the two main characters (Yaoyun and Liyun), both couples will have to adapt to the tremendous social and economic changes that have taken place in China since the 1980s.
The death of Yaoyun and Liyun’s only child in a dramatic accident and the political responsibilities of their female friend – she is responsible for implementing the one-child policy in the community- will affect their friendship, and the two couples will drift apart.
However, the search for truth and reconciliation will remain to this day. We witness three decades of communist dictatorship, the one-child policy, and growing consumerism. A social and personal tragedy that moves in a grey and poor environment, the harsh reality surrounds them.
The film spans five decades in the lives of Yaoyun and Liyun after they see their only child die in an accident. The tragedy marks the couple’s lives, leaving them anchored in a particular moment while a series of transformations unfold around them as the progressive shift towards a capitalist economy grows.
At one point in the film, citing Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the Party leader and manager of the company informed that, among many others, both protagonists would be dismissed from the factory because it must be profitable. They have to migrate to another region. Due to using a different dialect, they have problems adapting to find a modest job and survive
The protagonist couple, who stay together despite their miseries, is perfectly embodied by Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun (that won both a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for their magnificent performances). They manage to put themselves in the shoes of all those couples who suffered the reproductive repression of communist China, maintaining admirable sobriety and restraint until the end, swallowing the emotions and trying to move on.
The one-child policy: then and now
The director Wang Xiaoshuai has managed to show in his films the political and social evolution of his country, stretching the line between what the regime allows him to shoot and what his commitment demands.
«So Long, My Son», as is often the case in the films of Wang Xiaoshuai’s generation, combines a profound intimacy with the ambition to reflect Chinese history since its conversion to the market economy driven by Deng Xiaoping. He tackles on a human scale the consequences of political designs at that time in China based on the one-child mandate: what happens if you lose the only chance the government gives you to be a parent?
Wang Xiaoshuai, in an interview, ironically commented that
There is something more beyond loss and grief.
Wang uses their mourning for the death of their son to go through the social/political changes in China so that we can compare every day and rural life. Through Liyun’s tired eyes, we know that sometimes you can’t find reasons to go on living, but you go on living; through the sullen attitude of his wife, YaoJu, we discover that there is something beyond loss and grief.
In the end, after all the suffering, we are offered the light. «Isn’t it strange that we are still afraid to die?» says one of the characters.
It turns out to be an eye-opener, the epiphany that we complete with the characters and which points out to us that this story, or China’s, or any other, can end up being a hymn to life because, in the face of tragedy, life always fights harder.
Qin Xiao, of the professionals I follow most actively in Linkedin, from whom one learns a lot thanks to her educated, honest and measured contributions on her vision of the world, gave me this beautiful explanation:
» In this movie, the leading characters lost their only son. The wife could no longer give birth to another son due to a medical accident. The husband could have divorced her to marry another one who could have given him a son. Instead, he chose to endure the suffering together with her. He and her also chose to forgive those who brought this tragedy upon them, moving away to a far-flung corner so that they may not observe their sinking away to the abyss.
They had their redemption eventually, after quietly bearing all theirs pains.
Thus, one possible translation of 地久天长 would be, Like the Earth, Like the Sky.»
With this masterpiece of Chinese cinema, we end a new stage of our «Journey to the East«…