So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Climbers (攀登者, Daniel Lee, 2019)

The Climbers poster 1“Because it’s there” George Mallory famously said when questioned why exactly he wanted to climb Mount Everest. The hero of Daniel Lee’s The Climbers (攀登者, Pāndēngzhĕ) who regards Mallory as his idol has a slightly more reasoned response when similarly questioned by a student, pausing before explaining that humans are always eager to climb towards the future. That will prove to be a rather ironic statement in that Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) is a man in many ways trapped by past injustice, unable to move on from simultaneously achieving his dream and being denied its glory.

Narrated by meteorologist and Wuzhou’s innocent love interest Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), the action begins in 1960 when the Chinese National Mountaineering Team makes an attempt to conquer Everest from the North Face in response to a territorial challenge from the other side. During the ascent, the team’s captain is killed leaving the three remaining members to press on to the summit alone. Having conquered the mountain, they are unable to record their achievement because they lost the camera during an avalanche and so their success goes unrecognised by the international community. This is particularly bad news for Wuzhou whose intensely romantic attempt to woo shy meteorology student Xu Ying is interrupted at the critical moment by the news they’ve been denied and all their dreams are dashed. Wuzhou becomes sullen and withdrawn, resentful at being thought a fraud. The failure costs him the courage he had mustered to pursue his romantic destiny, allowing Xu Ying to leave for many years of research in the Soviet Union without telling her how he really feels.

Xu Ying’s commentary opts for understatement when it briefly remarks that the nation entered a period of “darkness” following the “failure” of the Everest attempt after which the Chinese National Mountaineering Team was disbanded. Wuzhou is relegated to the boiler room in a factory while his surviving friends, Jiebu (Lawang Lop) and Songlin (Zhang Yi), pursue their separate destinies, Jiebu returning to his sheep farm and Songlin, whose foot was ruined by frostbite, joining a sports training facility. By 1975, times have changed and the powers that be see fit to mount another attempt on Everest in order to measure it “properly” and restore China’s international mountain climbing reputation.

For all that The Climbers is a propaganda epic filled with calls to “show the world what Chinese men can do”, it has its share of flawed heroes failing to measure up to a vision of themselves as fearless champions of their nation. Wuzhou is understandably an embittered man obsessed with the rejection of his first summit, but he’s also an emotional coward who ties the need to have his success validated with the right to speak his heart to the improbably patient Xu Ying who apparently continues holding a torch for him throughout her long years in Russia, only implying she can’t wait for him any longer by putting their relationship on a professional footing when she arrives to lead the meteorological department on the 1975 summit attempt. Nevertheless, the pair share an array of meaningful looks filled with poignant longing while Xu Ying laments the presence of the mountain which stands between them before seemingly deciding to sacrifice herself for Wuzhou’s dream in the forlorn hope of finally conquering it.

Songlin, meanwhile, is resentful not so much towards the mountain or the fact that he will never be able to climb it again but towards Wuzhou who saved his life and let the camera fall, thereby bringing shame on the Chinese nation. Later, a brave young man opts to sacrifice his life to ensure the camera’s survival, and as Songlin later comes to understand the climb is a heavy responsibility which puts young lives at risk for a fairly meaningless prize which may not bring the glory to their nation that the young men and women trying to reach the summit might expect. Nevertheless, they plough on regardless. 1960 leads to 1975, and then to 2019 in which intrepid Chinese climbers once again attempt to conquer Everest in the company of a (in some ways not terribly) surprising star cameo in order to reemphasise the nation’s manly prowess and overwhelming desire to protect what it sees as its territory. Lee makes the most of the snowy vistas for a series of death defying stunts as the team (repeatedly) encounter avalanches, rock falls, and dangerous storms, risking all to bring glory to China but remaining resolute in their determination to make it all the way to the top.


The Climbers is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shadow (影, Zhang Yimou, 2018)

Shadow poster 1Zhang Yimou waxes Shakespearean in a tale of palace intrigue and a world out of balance in his latest return to the age of wuxia, Shadow (影, Yǐng). Drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings, Zhang’s monochromatic world has a chilling beauty even in its intense layers of oppression which make prisoners of king and subjects alike. Like the yin yang diagram on which the climatic battle takes place, Shadow is a tale of dualities and oppositions as its hollowed out hero begins to wonder who exactly he might be without the mirror.

Long ago in feudal China, the Kingdom of Pei has been living in peace thanks to an “alliance” with the Yang who are technically occupying the former Pei city of Jing. Many in the Kingdom of Pei are unhappy with this arrangement, regarding the loss of Jing as a humiliation and the king’s refusal to retake it more cowardice than pragmatism. Despite the king’s instruction that the truce must be maintained and war avoided at all costs, his trusted commander has undertaken a secret meeting with Yang in which he has agreed to a personal duel for the honour of Pei. The king is very unhappy. A lesser man might have lost his head, but the king needs his commander. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the commander is not all he seems. Nobleman Yu (Deng Chao) was badly injured during a previous fight with Yang and has retreated to the catacombs while his double, Jing (also Deng Chao), has been playing his part in court.

Jing, “saved” from poverty as a young child brought to the palace as a double for Yu, is grateful and loyal. He respects his masters and has trained hard to learn the skills needed to pass as a nobleman and more particularly as Yu. As such he has no “identity”. Even his name was given to him by his master and is simply that of the town where he was found which happens to be the disputed city itself. Jing does everything right – his instincts are good, he is clever and quick-witted with a talent for intrigue, all of which makes him both a danger and a shield for Yu. Yu, meanwhile, trapped in the same underground cell which used to house Jing, has become warped and embittered. Nursing a mortal wound, he plots and schemes against the king, scuttling goblin-like as he rails against his fate.

Yu promises Jing a release from his mental imprisonment if he agrees to take part in the duel with Yang. Jing knows that Yu’s promise is hollow and that he is not intended to survive, but submits himself to his fate anyway. He does this, partly, in hope but also because of his longstanding but unspeakable love for Madam (Sun Li) – Yu’s wife, who is one of the few people ever to express pity for his miserable circumstances. As the film opens, Madam and the king’s sister are reading proverbs together including one which insists that men are meant to rule. The king, however, is weak – he is effete and prefers the art of the brush to that of the sword, while his sister is “wild” – a bold and impetuous young woman seemingly more suited to the throne than her foppish brother.

As if to complete the theme, it’s Madam who eventually reveals the technique to beat Yang to her increasingly crazed husband. In order to defeat his hyper masculine enemy who fights with a giant sabre, Yu resolves to fight like a girl armed with one of Pei’s iconic parasols reconfigured in sharpened iron. Only by creating balance can they hope to win, meeting the weight of Yang’s blunt force with a lightness of touch and feminine elegance. 

The world of Shadow is one defined by its dualities – male/female, lowborn and high, betrayal and loyalty, arrogance and supplication. Jing’s existence is defined by that of the “true” commander – a shadow cannot exist without a form to cast it, or so it had always been thought. Offered the possibility of escape, Jing’s original identity begins to resurface. Yet his victory over his “other self” is also a defeat which infects him with the dubious moralities of the court, allowing him to become more than himself alone and leaving the world once again dangerously unbalanced. As the opening narration told us, however, it is not Jing, or Yu, or the king who hold the fate of Pei in their hands but Madam whose final decision will dictate the course of history. Set in a world of oppressive greys broken only by the driving rain and shocking redness of blood, Shadow may not return Zhang to the balletic heights of the poetic Hero, but does its best to add Shakespearean grandeur to its tragic tale of fractured identities and conflicting desires.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)