So Long, My Son
[…] The architecture of the film becomes itself a proper character, insofar as it refers to a social (and political) system where a simple accident can reveal the hidden crimes of an authoritarian top-down collectivism.
[…] The epic tonality of the tale does not find its accomplishment in glory or victory, but in piety. In its exclamative climax we feel the breath of humanism.
3 hours and 5 minutes is the actual run time of So Long, My Son, but there are at least three reasons for which Wang Xiaoshuai’s last film is far from being perceived as long. Firstly, the perception of time is one of its main focus points: through a complex but always organic editing, time is scattered like a panoramic puzzle, like a large question mark that constantly triggers our curiosity. The meaning of the different time connections prevails on linear and factual storytelling. The main characters become the tenants of time, even if their stories happen to be victims of History.
Secondly, the run time is necessary for us to follow the unfolding structure of the web of stories that are told. Starting from the Archimedean point of view of an accident, So Long, My Son is the reconstruction of the consequences of this accident in the lives of the characters. From these consequences we learn just how deeply their lives are interconnected, which throws an intelligent light on Chinese collectivism. The architecture of the film becomes itself a proper character, insofar as it refers to a social (and political) system where a simple accident can reveal the hidden crimes of an authoritarian top-down collectivism.
In following this historical thread – and this is the third reason – we understand that even three hours plus of film is still a short time in which to see the evolution of (recent Chinese) History. Starting with the Eighties, with the moderate opening up to private initiatives, and with the strict policy of one child per family, History is conjugated through the stories of ordinary people in order to reobtain a historical value. The bigger picture and the particular stories interlock in So Long, My Son to draw an impressive fresco of the evolution of the last 40 years of Chinese history. One should not forget that in a country that suffers from intense censorship, History can be a relatively neutral domain, where the acceptable criticism of past situations can conceal the appraisal of a time that will finally appear even more tolerant and human than the current situation – which amounts to an indirect criticism of the contemporary times…
On one side, Wang Xiaoshuai’s film is attentive to the most minute of details and the reconstruction of daily life. Its authenticity hints at evident autobiographical experience. On the other side, however, this philological basis is never pedantic, for So Long, My Son, like its title suggests, develops into a filmic exclamation, an emotional crescendo that ends with a long sigh. A breath of relief, that expresses an intention of reconciliation, through the stories and with History. The epic tonality of the tale does not find its accomplishment in glory or victory, but in piety. In its exclamative climax we feel the breath of humanism.
Yes, but which one? And which one is of which parents? We’ll have to wait a long time before understanding the family bonds and who is who through the different epochs, even if these bonds constitute the essence of the intricate plot of So Long, My Son. Yet, this difficulty has a clear meaning in expressing how the collectivism penetrates even the smallest family unit. Through this difficulty we can measure the drama of the private and the public, the individual and the society. Harmony, then struggle, until a separation of the private domain occurs, whose cost for the protagonists is an important worsening of their working conditions. On this path, story and History, again, are superposed. The failure of Chinese collectivism works as both liberation and disintegration. Only the emerging of the humanist thread, which appears to be necessarily apolitical, is able to balance the difficult consequences of this disintegration.
Is the humanist thread of So Long, My Son necessarily bound to the private spheres of their characters? Only partially. Even if the main couple suffers its long grief in a growingly private dimension, thereby underlining the natural bonds of family, the experience of an entire life will teach them to recognize and feel the importance of the bond that they could build, independently of any blood relationship. The “mineness” of the expression “my son” will thus refer less to what one has, and more to what one can build. In an opposite direction of a politicised top-down collectivism, Wang Xiaoshuai’s film shows the (re-)birth of a bottom-up pluralism, when family opens to the collective dimension through affection and solidarity.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: October 19, 2019