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Take That! So Long, My Son and the Future of Chinese Cinema

Take That!: Jiaqi Kang is an Oxford Blue Film & TV columnist. Every week, join Jiaqi in discussion with friends, fellow cinephiles and film foes on what they’ve been watching.

My golden age of filmgoing was when the Megamovie website was still up. As a fourteen-year-old scrolling on Tumblr after school, I would come across gifsets from (500) Days of Summer or Leon the Professional and immediately go watch the film. I quickly became that girl who liked arthouse flicks and became especially insufferable when I fell into a rabbit hole of pretentious Chinese movies in the name of ‘rediscovering my identity’. 

These days, I’m so exhausted by the Oxford grind that when I do get time to watch anything, I often just click over to the latest Netflix Original rom-com. Let It Snow was surprisingly good but I haven’t lost my passion for film and will not hesitate to provide my hot takes on Park Chan-wook or (god forbid) Tarantino. In fact, arguing about inconsequential details in movies is the only thing that makes me feel alive. My opinions are pretty set: white men=evil; old stuff= boring; lesbian= cool and flocks of birds taking flight=VERY COOL. My friends (shockingly) disagree. Make some popcorn and follow me as I fight a range of people tooth and nail in the name of neon lighting, sincerity, and politics. 

My friend Alexis, who is half Chinese, spent some time studying film at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy and wrote an insightful dissertation on shifting romantic tropes in modern Chinese television. We tend to have different tastes; I’m always promising to watch the media she recommends and Alexis is a lot more generous and less judgemental in her viewing habits. This Saturday, we went to see So Long, My Son at the Ultimate Picture Palace. Director Wang Xiaoshuai, enfant terrible of the Sixth Generation, has always been curious about marital dynamics, beginning his career with the 1993 film The Days which depicts two artists played by his friends and was shot on a shoestring budget over consecutive weekends- the only times when everyone was free to meet. This 2019 picture, set against the backdrop of the One Child Policy, tells the story of one couple over thirty years as they deal with the death of their son. 

Modern Chinese cinema is loosely defined by avant-garde ‘Generations’. The Fifth Generation, spanning the 1980s to early 1990s consists of ‘sent-down youth’ of the Cultural Revolution, reflecting on their experiences of Communist China with films like Farewell my Concubine with both nostalgia and resentment. During the late 1990s and the 2000s, the Sixth Generation cast their lenses on China’s rapid economic change and the ensuing alienation, such as in the documentary-like Unknown Pleasures. As I like to say, the Fifth Generation is city boys traumatised by the country and the Sixth Generation is country boys traumatised by the city. The past decade has seen Sixth Generation directors mature and gain mainstream recognition- they no longer have to film on camcorders – so it’s been interesting to see how their films have changed. In particular, the decade-spanning epic is an iconic Fifth Generation trope, so how would Wang Xiaoshuai tackle it in So Long, My Son

Jiaqi (predictably): “I think the trouble with male directors when they ‘make it’ is that they start indulging themselves too much. The start of the film was extremely elegant in its exposition, but it just kept going on and on. But I did enjoy the architecture and environments. The grimy interiors, the plastic baskets, the faded bedsheets. It’s like how my family in China lived.”

Alexis felt a strong connection to the setting of Fujian, where her father is from: “It reminded me of Manchester by the Sea. They’re both shot in a small seaside town with a very slow and stately pace. That kind of neorealism, which is such a hallmark and almost defines the Sixth Generation style, was really apparent in the first two thirds of So Long, My Son. The bereaved couple living in this town which has its own kind of barrenness and industrial coldness- you can feel their grief clinging to the docks.”

Jiaqi: “I thought I’d cry, but I didn’t feel much at all.”

Alexis: “The way flashbacks are used in Manchester by the Sea, and would be used in any highly emotional family drama, is to show that the past is too much part of the present. What these people have been through is awful and traumatising and they can’t live in the present because their lives stopped for them when their children died. The main character in So Long, My Son says ‘Time already stopped for me and Liyun. We’re just waiting to die.’”

Jiaqi: “They shouldn’t have gone back to the side characters at the end when the couple’s estranged friends invite them back home and they reconcile- it was too much.”

Alexis: “The film was trying to portray the resolving of grief and the idea that life does go on and new life springs forth- as we saw with Haohao having a new baby. Only, it handled that really clumsily. It’s such a shame, especially when the grief was portrayed so tenderly in the moments of stillness.”

Consensus: No film ever truly needs to be three hours long. Delete that last hour!

Jiaqi Kang is a third-year History of Art student at St. Catherine’s College, and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Sine Theta Magazine.