Programme Notes: So Long, My Son


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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

Wang Xiaoshuai, the director of So Long My Son (2019), is ‘very afraid of mawkish and melodramatic films’ and of ‘seeing people crying in real life’ – the viewer, therefore, will not see many tears or dramatic hair pulling in the film. Just like other ‘sixth generation’ directors, who tend to be slightly older than those producing commercially successful films in China, Wang provides his audiences with candid observations of Chinese society. Even though his cinema is rather emotionally restrained, the themes he presents are profoundly moving – such as Chinese government’s abuse of sexual and reproductive rights of the country’s citizens.

So Long, My Son tells the story of a married couple Liyun (Yong Mei) and Yaojun (Wang Jingchun), who work in a factory in northeast China. The plot covers over 40 years and shows how the country’s political system gradually interferes in the couple’s personal lives. The unfolding of events is not presented in a chronological way and even though we see the main cause of their trauma at the very beginning, we sense that there are many more elements of this heart-breaking yet calmly delivered puzzle.

One of the main themes of the film is the one-child policy adopted by the Chinese government in 1970s to limit China’s population growth. When Liyun becomes pregnant for the second time, she is given a forced abortion that leaves her unable to have any more children. A few years later, we see her only son Xingxing being brought to the exact same hospital only to be pronounced dead.

Haiyan (Liya Ai), the factory’s family planning director, is the one who forces Liyun to terminate her pregnancy. Even though she seems to be cold and unmoved by what she does to her colleague, the incredible guilt does not leave her until the moment she dies – even more so because her own son is somewhat responsible for Xingxing’s death. When decades later Liyun and Yaojun return to see Haiyan again before she passes, the woman, who had already become delirious, says to them that now that she is rich there is no need for Liyun to have an abortion – Haiyan would be able to help the couple pay the extraordinarily high fee for having another child. This might be the saddest scene in the entire film.

Although abandoned in 2016, some say it may take up to 50 years for China’s aging society to recover from 30 years of the drastic one-child policy. However, despite the government’s best efforts, some women simply do not want more than one child – if they decide to have children at all. Nevertheless, Chinese officials are enforcing new ‘pro-family’ policies, such as making it more difficult for couples to divorce or for women to terminate a pregnancy. In some areas, a number of new benefits have been proposed, which aim to encourage people to have children. These include tax breaks, housing subsidies and longer parental leaves. It seems like once again, just like in the case of So Long, My Son’s factory workers who are about to lose their jobs, the Chinese people are expected to ‘serve their country before serving their own interest’. This state interference in how many children people have is not just a case of extreme control – it is against human rights as it prevents women from making their own decisions. Although the government has not yet introduced any punitive measures against those with no children or one child, some worry this might change. 

So Long, My Son is the first part of Wang’s promised ‘Homeland Trilogy’ and, as the title of the upcoming series suggests, the one-child policy is not the only issue the director tackles in the film. As we watch Liyun and Yaojun move south and grow older, we also observe how their country is changing. At the beginning, there does not appear to be many financial differences between the workers, even though Haiyan’s status at the factory is higher than that of her friends. However, the economic reform of the 1980s sees a great number of people lose their jobs and a more visible divide between rich and poor emerges. The south, the promised land of prosperity, has not much to offer once Liyun and Yaojun get to Fujian. 

When the couple visit their old factory quarters, they realise that ‘there is almost nothing left of their past’. Even though their house looks exactly how it did when they left, the factory is closed, their son has been dead for years and their country looks nothing like it did in the past. The use of music in So Long, My Son is rather sparse but one song keeps reappearing, making it impossible not to notice it – ‘Auld Lang Syne’, rendered in Chinese as ‘Everlasting Friendship’. It signals the arrival of changes, in both China and in Liyun and Yaojun’s personal lives, and ironically highlights the fact that their friendship with the other factory workers will be far from everlasting.

With a Golden Bear nomination at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival and both Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei claiming awards for Best Actor and Best Actress, the ‘Homeland Trilogy’ is off to a promising start.  Hopefully the two upcoming instalments are as successful as the first.

 

Alicja Tokarska
Freelance translator and writer
December 2019



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