Marking the 12th feature film by Wang Xiaoshuai, Golden Bear nominee So Long, My Son follows two families who become estranged over three decades. Set in China, two boys, Xingxing (Wang Yuan) and Haohao (Du Jiang), are born on the same day and become close friends. Their shared birthday and friendship also form bonds between their respective families, who work in the same factory. But when Xingxing tragically dies, the families grow apart with the mystery of his death looming over them.
Considering it is a somewhat historical piece, So Long, My Son is not one for fancy de-ageing technology, special effects or expansive production sets. Instead, the film offers an in-depth look into China’s controversial history. Wang’s slow-drawn narrative highlights cultural aspects such as communism, its one-child policy and its stance towards censorship to provide friction among the characters. It also provides a window to China’s cold bureaucracy and a lifestyle that some may see as restrictive, but one that many Chinese people have grown accustomed to.
The expansive timeline may explain the 185-minute runtime but as the film is built around confusing non-linear narrative, its slow, drawn-out approach reinforces the bleakness of the story and the misery of its characters, so viewers are practically grasping for something positive to happen – and more notably, a happy ending.
In that respect, we become empathic to central couple Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Wang Liuyun (Yong Mei). As they live their lives amid China’s ever-changing social landscape, the ramifications of not only the accident in question but also – and more specifically – the country’s one-child policy, take their mental and physical toll. Despite their desperation to keep their family together, the couple’s unforeseen circumstances eventually lead to them having a fractured relationship filled with detachment.
While both actors deliver compelling, understated performances, Wang Jingchun is the film’s emotional core as Yaojun’s deep disdain of China’s politics and patronising patriotism sees him take foolish steps to change his predicament. In comparison, Yinun rarely expresses her emotions and becomes resigned to the restrictions inflicted upon her, especially through her authoritative friend Li Haiyan (Ai Liya). Ultimately, they surrender to their quiet, stoical natures that have been enforced over the last 30 years.
Behind the camera, cinematographer Kim Hyung-Seok offers a stark view of China, which draw attention to the back-to-basics lifestyle of its citizens to provide a humbling view to Western audiences. The naturalism of his visuals is complemented by Wang’s simplistic dialogue and off-centred direction as they subtly reinforce the detachment of the characters, leaving audiences to emotionally adhere to their situation in the hope of closure – and the aforementioned happy ending.
Overall, So Long, My Son offers a compelling yet heartbreaking exploration of grief, politics and family in China. Guided by captivating performances from Wang Jinchun and Jong Mei, it packs an emotional punch.