A beautiful, heart-aching film that will live alongside China’s classics for years to come.
The titular likeness that So Long My Son (2019) bears to Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine is a statement of director Wáng Xiǎoshuài’s 王小帅 ambition. Above all, this ambition is self-evident from his film: it demands the audience’s attention for over three hours while teasing viewers with an intricately non-linear timeline, achingly piecemeal plot developments, and emotionally torturous cycles of despair and relief.
So Long, My Son and Farewell My Concubine share a similar structure in which the tragic lives of a tightly bound duo are spotlit across decades of sociopolitical upheaval. Farewell My Concubine stages Cheng Deiyi (Leslie Cheung 张国荣 Zhāng Guóróng) and his boyhood friend, opera co-star and unrequited homoerotic love interest Duan Xiaolu (Zhāng Fēngyì 张丰毅). The pair’s personal travails are charted onto national ones, specifically the warlord era, Japanese invasion, and Cultural Revolution. So Long, My Son focuses on a married couple, Liu Yaojun (Wáng Jǐngchūn 王景春) and Wang Liyun (Yǒng Méi 咏梅), whose figurative and literal child-loss is set against China’s 30 years of change from the late 1970s to the present day.
However, if Farewell My Concubine presents a world in which drama and reality blur (Xiaolu is Deiyi’s King on and off stage), So Long, My Son is all too real in its raw parental grief. If the historical arc of Farewell My Concubine is one of compounding destruction, that of So Long, My Son is one of development. Where the former depicts invasion, the latter offers withdrawal. Though suicide is posed as a climactic question in both films, the answers given are opposites. It is not in comparison to Farewell My Concubine that So Long My Son distinguishes itself as a great film. The latter contrasts the former in many ways. Rather, it is through the internal contrasts that So Long My Son explores — and how these relate to China’s recent socioeconomic history — that its remarkable triumph as a film is secured.
So Long, My Son conveys the stasis of grief, cruelly magnified by continuous change everywhere else. As people flock to urban areas to take advantage of economic opportunities in the reform and opening era, Liyun and Yaojun revert from the city. The couple escape the locus of their son’s death to a dilapidated waterfront in Fujian. They leave behind a close-knit social community — riven by collective guilt and grief — for a place where they do not speak the local dialect. A place where the sound of activity and international trade — honking ships on the horizon — juxtapose Yaojun’s endless, soundless puffs of smoke and shots of liquor on the seafront. Further inland, in his slipshod workshop, Yaojun whirs a rickety machine round and round, it seems for the sake of catharsis more so than productivity. Liyun and Yaojun know well their grief-induced stasis: “Time stopped for us a long time ago, we’re just waiting to grow old.” Meanwhile, China is growing new.
The film’s tragic symmetry reinforces the grieving couple’s inertia, always returning them to their grief. The green and white walls of Yaojun and Liyun’s local hospital lose benignity and accrue a sinister familiarity. On two further occasions, the couple find themselves back at the place of their son’s death, while newborn babies cry in the background. So Long, My Son is a lesson in the many different ways — from fatality to estrangement — to lose many different loved ones — from blood relations to de facto family; from the born to the unborn. Tragedy metamorphosizes and repeats itself on Yaojun and Liyun — it is forced upon them — forbidding they evolve with the outside world.
It is while the couple pay their final visit to the local hospital that their comparative stasis becomes most apparent. The scene cuts from the Fujianese local hospital, with its clunky trolleys, to a shiny one elsewhere. There, a slick doctor — Liyun and Yaojun’s now grown-up godson — reviews the brain scans of Haiyan, their old neighbor. Two worlds of sickness and tragedy are juxtaposed, one static and primitive, the other dynamic and new. This stark contrast is a watershed moment, though. Yaojun and Liyun agree to leave their reclusive backwater and visit the dying Haiyan in the city. In doing so, they are paradoxically cast into the future and past at once.
Yaojun and Liyun’s return to the city, their hometown, is vertiginous. The now-grayed couple peer out of car windows and onto the future with a mixture of confusion, mournfulness, and wonder. The city is changed beyond recognition. Only a statue of Mao — which elicits a wry smile from Yaojun — and the couple’s old apartment bear familiarity. Therein, among the retro appliances and poor insulation, the couple simultaneously relive their fullest life and sharpest grief. Yaojun places a photo of father, mother, and child in pride of place. Though seemingly banal, this act departs from the couple’s awkward handling of the photo in earlier scenes — for example, when Liyun expressionlessly salvages the photo from floodwater in the couple’s Fujian home, and when Yaojun cradles it in a drunken stupor. In these moments of wreckage and intoxication, the couple collides with, rather than confronts, the past. So Long, My Son speaks the cruel paradox that the past is the locus of both pain and relief. Liyun and Yaojun must meet it head-on to resume time.
So Long My Son is an extraordinary all-rounder: the chafing pain of lead actors Wang Jinchun and Yong Mei drive the audience beyond sorrow to despair. The cinematographic precision and sonorous motifs weave the three hours of non-linear plot seamlessly together. The sociopolitical critique of the One Child Policy and China’s industrial reform is incisively humane and subtle. However, it is the interrogation of a simple question that places So Long, My Son among the greats: What happens when the world moves faster than we can?
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