Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is so epic and ambitious it renders most other movies puny by comparison. Spanning three decades, Beijing Bicycle director Wang tries to encapsulate the seismic changes in Chinese society but parlay them through the prism of ordinary people living ordinary lives. But not only that, he mounts the story in a bold narrative fashion, flitting between different time frames to create interesting connections and juxtapositions between old and new. If it is sometimes perplexing with the occasional inert passage, the result has all the richness of a novel — even if sometimes you would like to flick back a few pages to keep events clear.
Genre-wise, So Long, My Son is a family melodrama. In ’70s China during the Cultural Revolution, Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun’s (Yong Mei) young son Xingxing dies in a drowning accident so the pair leave their home town to restart their life in a small Fujian town where they adopt a teenager we later learn is also called Xingxing (Wang Yuan). Flashing back to the ‘80s, Yaojun and Liyun are working in a factory where their friend Haiyan (Al Liya) is the factory official in charge of planned parenthood, forcing Liyun to have an abortion after she falls pregnant contravening the (now abandoned) Chinese national policy that decrees couples have only one child.
Yang’s delicate touch, both in filmmaking terms and with his actors makes it ring both true and moving.
Orbiting these characters is Yaojun’s apprentice Moli (Qi Xi), the sister of Haiyan’s husband Yingming (Xu Cheng), who has an infatuation with her mentor, and Xinjan (Zhao Yanguozhang), a fun-loving, narcissistic livewire who finds his high spirits quashed by the draconian authorities.
There are multiple characters to keep track of over numerous timelines and Wang doesn’t give you any signposting (i.e. captions) to keep you straight. Slowly drip-feeding character information, his decision to play with the time line is one of the reasons the film doesn’t descend into sudsy melodrama. There’s so much in the way of incident, big narrative turns and huge emotions that in less skilful hands it would feel manipulative.
Yet Yang’s delicate touch, both in filmmaking terms — Kim Hyun-seok’s handheld camera is unobtrusive, Dong Yingda’s spare score is beautiful — and with his actors makes it ring both true and moving. The cast is across the board strong, but the MVP is Wang Jingchun. He gives Yaojun an innate sense of decency and humanity that is deeply affecting — especially in its last act when Haiyan and Yingming, now prosperous property developers, invite Yaojun and Liyun back to their home town when the various plot and emotional strands come together to devastating effect.