Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Moral Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Compassion: So Long, My Son

Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun in So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长, 2019)

Chinese New Year is almost upon us, a time for family and reflection – the perfect context in which to see Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长, 2019). The Chinese title is also the title of the Chinese translation of "Auld Lang Syne," and the two feel similar. And this is film whose (Taiwanese) trailer accurately reflects its feeling as well. It was my best theatrical experience of 2019.

The film is an exploration of the ramifications of a young boy’s death. As it opens, two boys look on as a group of friends play by a riverbank. One is egging on the other, who can't swim, to join them. He refuses, and the first boy leaves him, but by an uncanny and elided-over turn of events, the second boy joins them anyway, and drowns. The second boy is Xingxing (Wu Jiachen) and the first is Haohao (Zhang Xinyuan); they were born on the same day and year, and their families are part of a close-knit group of factory workers who live in the same Beijing dorm. That, of course, changes quickly.

At this point, the film starts jumping among three parallel plotlines focused on Xingxing’s parents, father Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and mother Wang Liyun (Yong Mei). In one, Xingxing is still alive, and alongside his friendship with the more adventurous Haohao we get to meet the rest of their parents’ friend group. One friend is Li Haiyan (Ai Liya), Haohao's mother and dorm Communist Party chief, and under the one-child policy it’s she who has to force Wang Liyun to abort an unexpected pregnancy. In another plotline, Liu and Wang have moved to the southern island province of Hainan to escape reminders of their past happiness; they’ve adopted a boy (Roy Wang) and also named him Xingxing, but unsurprisingly the weight of his impossible role as substitute son makes him rebellious. The third plotline finds Liu and Wang alone again, when an old acquaintance shows up unexpectedly: Haohao’s young aunt Moli (Qi Xi). A lengthy flashback reveals that, as Liu Yaojun's apprentice (Wu Shuang), she was infatuated with him, and now she’s come to fulfill her desires.

None of these plotlines has an emotionally clear-cut ending. Words like grief, mourning, tragedy, catharsis, forgiveness, and resolution are too simple for the complexity and entanglement of emotions that constitute the film. The three plotlines progress simultaneously, conveying the fully-fleshed-out sense of a key early line: when someone asks Liu how he and Wang are holding up after their son’s death, he says, “It’s like time has stopped, and we're just waiting to grow old.” In this sense, the film is the opposite of Boyhood (2014), which can sometimes bury the character of the protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), under the presentation of his growing through time.

What makes this film really sing is the breathing room that director Wang allows his two leads. The film is three-hours long because, though it might look like a melodrama on paper, each scene begins early enough to provide sufficient emotional context and continues long enough after the climax that we shift our focus from the action to the characters and how they feel. This approach encourages empathetic and lived-in performances from the two leads. You make ask yourself, as I did walking out of the theater, how one makes a film with this level of emotionally naked naturalism? Filmmaking by its very essence takes the raw material of a performance and artistically distorts it in the process of mediation and recording. But sometimes that raw material can itself be so excellent that one hardly knows where to start distorting. In this film, the structure of most scenes is determined by emotional contour rather than beats; the performances are so well contextualized and lived-in that often one simply feels as if a scene could go on indefinitely, could elongate into an entire life and be equally relevant and engrossing. That the performances seem so natural and pristine despite the necessary distortions of filmmaking is a testament to the artistry of not only actors and director Wang but also editor Lee Chatametikool. As I’ve noted before, the only thing separating naturalism from cliché is detailed context.

It’s not a perfect film. Moli’s plotline feels like a bit of a reach, as Variety’s Jessica Kiang observes , but since the background and emotional stakes are fully integrated with the rest of the film, I think the problem is Qi Xi’s acting. There’s a scene of Moli having a vulnerable conversation with Liu in the cab of a truck; the lines that she delivers while looking at him, versus the lines she delivers while looking away, strike me as the opposite of what someone in her situation would say in real life. In other words, compared with the naturalistic acting going on around her, Qi’s acting is actively guiding the viewer’s attention; she looks at him not because it feels right, but because she wants us to know that that particular line concerns him and their relationship and not just herself. It’s a different wavelength of acting, and it feels shallower in comparison.

Some may also object to the happy ending. After many years of self-imposed exile, Liu and Wang receive word that Li Haiyan, Haohao’s mother, is dying. They return to Beijing, where their old dorm room is just as they left it. Everyone is happy to see them, Haohao (now played by Du Jiang) finally tells them exactly what happened on that fateful day, Li and Wang Liyun reconcile before Li dies, and everything turns out fine. Even the adopted son (now played by Liu Ruilin) returns with girlfriend in tow. But after three hours, the catharsis feels fully earned. It’s as if the point is not that time heals all wounds, but that it reveals the continuing strength of the connection that was wounded in the first place. The stronger the connection, the deeper the wound; but the deeper the wound, the stronger the connection. It’s the perfect message for a raucous family gathered for Chinese New Year.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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