So Long, My Son (Di jiu tian chang) by Wang Xiaoshuai is a deeply moving, generations-spanning drama exploring the long-term effect of China’s one-child policy on a small circle of friends.
Secrets and Liesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Wang Xiaoshuai’s time-hopping epic and profoundly moving melodrama So Long, My Son explores the human consequences across three decades of China’s one-child policy (which lasted from 1979–2013).
So Long My Son gives us a strong brooding sense of the uncaring sweep of those revolutionary changes, in which ordinary people are left heartbroken and helpless against fate or social engineering or ideology.
It’s a period of tectonic shifts in society and So Long My Son movingly shows the effects at a human level. The group of friends that Wang concentrates on live quiet lives filled with unspoken guilt, grief, regret and remorse – until the final denouement.
So Long, My Son does not unfold chronologically — it is shaped so that the past and the present loop around each another. It starts with the accidental drowning of an unknown boy and the grief of the couple we imagine are his parents – all seen by us from a distance. Though this event is not initially explained, its meaning is slowly revealed as the film progresses and its repercussions are felt throughout the two generations we follow.
The young couple we have seen at first, Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Wang Liyun (Yong Mei), live through being workers at the grim state factory in a city during the Cultural Revolution and the forced abortions of China’s prevailing one-child policy. Though they’re obedient to the communist party, they don’t benefit from China’s good fortune and they move to a remote fishing community where they scrape a living, hampered by not speaking the local dialect, and are unable to cope with a bitter relationship with their teenage son Xing (Wang Yuan).
Meanwhile their erstwhile friends, a couple who were also their co-workers at the factory, supervisor Haiyan (Al Liya) and her husband, have become prosperous, profiting from the one-child policy responsible for the dynamic changes taking place in China’s cities.
Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun give wonderful performances as a loving couple who are ground down by life yet still compassionate and tender. Both the couples age subtly and convincingly over the decades as they see the next generation – their sons – grow up in ways that reflects the changed society. The flashy new buildings and advertising hoardings that have sprung up all around them in their hometown make the city – and the life and society – they once knew almost unrecognisable.
So Long, My Son and its use of the tune of Auld Lang Syne will break your heart. But finally it comes to a resolution which revisits the past and repays all the emotions it has put you though during its epic sweep.
Wang’s Beijing Bicycle took the Jury Prize in Berlin in 2001, and 2008’s In Love We Trust won best screenplay (he also scored a Jury Prize from Cannes for Shanghai Dreams).
So Long, My Son premiered at the Berlinale, screened at Cannes and the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 6 December 2019 in the UK.