A moving Chinese epic looking at the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the one-child policy and forced abortion made it past censors to premiere at the Berlin film festival Thursday despite a widening crackdown.
‘Di jiu tian chang’ (So Long, My Son) by Wang Xiaoshuai, clocking in at more than three hours, is a sweeping allegorical drama about two families whose fates become intricately intertwined across 30 years of dramatic change in their country.
Its world premiere comes just days after two Chinese filmmakers — veteran Zhang Yimou and Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang — had to withdraw their Berlinale entries, reportedly due to official disapproval.
Zhang’s ‘Yi miao zhong’ (One Second) is set during the Cultural Revolution, still a highly sensitive subject in China, while Tsang’s ‘Better Days’ deals with delinquent youth.
Wang told reporters in Berlin after a warmly received press preview that he was “shocked” when he heard his colleagues’ films had been pulled.
He said he did not know what they might have done to fall afoul of screeners but acknowledged that in China, “everyone, when you make a film, faces difficulties and challenges”.
While his own film dealt with “sensitive, painful” issues in modern Chinese memory, he said it got the dragon seal of approval to screen at the Berlinale because he had “followed the rules” set out by censors.
“The more change you have in a society, the more careful and meticulous you have to be in documenting it,” he said.
‘Forgetting about it all’
Wang, 52, is best known for ‘Beijing Bicycle’ and ‘Shanghai Dreams’, which picked up a prize in Cannes in 2005.
He belongs to the so-called sixth generation of post-Tiananmen Chinese filmmakers working outside the state system and touring the international festival circuit.
‘So Long, My Son’ traces the lives of a couple whose son drowns at a reservoir in a freak accident for which, it later emerges, their best friends’ child bears some of the blame.
The grieving parents are unable to have another child because the mother was rendered infertile by an abortion she was pressured to have under China’s former one-child policy.
They adopt a son but become estranged from him when he grows into a teenager, so when he runs away the abandoned parents set off from their seaside village for the city.
There they become overwhelmed by the turbo-capitalism of the place they once knew well, and the sudden wealth of their old friends. But they also are able to begin healing their long open wounds.
“After the Cultural Revolution ended, there was that saying ‘look forward and don’t think about the past’. That was at the time about forgetting about it all and getting on with the economy and freeing yourself from ideology,” Wang said.
“Now we need to take a fresh look at that phrase. We need to keep looking ahead but we do need to take lessons from the past.”
The Chinese entertainment sector blossomed as the government sought to foster homegrown fare and develop the industry as a global “soft power” asset.
But a push for more material approved by the Communist party has had a chilling effect on some artists.
Despite evidently sharper restrictions, Chinese cinema was having a vintage year at the Berlinale, Europe’s first movie showcase of the year.
‘So Long, My Son’ emerged as a strong contender for the Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded on Saturday by jury president Juliette Binoche.
It faces strong competition from ‘Ondog’, a droll meditation on love and women’s freedom set on the Mongolian plains by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, who picked up the trophy in 2006 for his film ‘Tuya’s Marriage’.
Meanwhile, despite sensitivities surrounding the Xinjiang region where Beijing is believed to have detained up to a million ethnic Uighur and other Muslim minorities, Wang Lina’s ‘A First Farewell’ also screened at the Berlinale.
The touching film delves deep into the daily struggles of the Uighurs, including scenes where parents are berated by Chinese teachers for failing to ensure that their children pass Chinese language examinations, or scenes where children are roped into help during harvests.
Wang said the film was a “long poem” paying tribute to the region where she spent her childhood.
Although Wang is ethnically Han Chinese, she grew up among Uighurs. She declined to talk about the political backdrop of her film at the festival.