‘So Long, My Son’ Review

Ellie Lachs reviews Wang Xiaoshuai’s emotional family epic.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s newest film So Long, My Son is a slow burner to say the least. The three hour ode to trauma slowly slips beneath the skin, unknowingly picking at any traces of complacency or contentment amidst its audience. The film follows two couples through China’s cultural revolution into modernity, skirting around, over and through the tragedies that hit each family.

So Long, My Son centres on a tight and traditional family unit in which friends are like family and family are like friends. The two central couples- Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun, and Shen Yingming and Li Haiyan – all live in the same apartment block, work in the same factory and have sons – Liu Xing (‘Xingxing’) and  Shen Hao (‘Haohao’) – that were born on the same day. This intimate bond, established early on in the film, quickly dissolves with the onset of the 1980s and the implementation of the One Child Policy. These interpersonal and national conflicts result in an uncomfortable and upsetting end, only to be trounced with the accidental death of Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun’s son. Such events make these tight-knight friendships too unbearable to sustain, and the result is a silent and grievous separation which only adds to the tragedies that have already taken place.

Where bereavement propels Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun to the province of Fujian, an underdeveloped area on the southeastern coast of China, all their friends stride into the city and its developing economy, creating a near irreconcilable rift between the familial unit.  Despite these geographical disparities, lingering guilt, regret and unspoken apologies drive the action within; this underlying current of unresolved emotion plays an integral role in holding the audience’s attention for all three hours. 

The hidden emotional depths of the characters are also conveyed formally, with many of the film’s scenes rejecting dialogue in favour of undefined background noise. Xiaoshuai proves how much action can take place against the clapping of waves, clicking of car doors and boiling of water in pans. This abject use of showing rather than telling directs the audience’s attention towards the facial expressions and body movements of the actors. Xiaoshuai demands us to heighten our haptic engagement, and in doing so plants us into his scenes; we become participants in the action. When Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun sit in their flat, stone-faced and glaring out of their window as the new year fireworks explode before them, they assume the same spectating role as us. The effect of the muted dialogue perpetuates the sense of ambiguity; we can only assume what is going on behind the deep-set countenances of grief and guilt. 

Xiaoshuai artfully pairs the constant state of questioning and anticipation with a decidedly non-linear chronology.  The director seamlessly flits between pre-Cultural Revolution, the centre of the Revolution, and the proceeding People’s Republic. The periods and plotlines are muddled, creating endless seconds of disorientation. The viewer is offered foresight without evidence and evidence without foresight, requiring them to decode the relevant plot details and distinguish the specific traits and lives of the characters within. 

This can, however, be possibly attributed to the circular nature of the plot. Many scenes echo former ones, causing the past to literally permeate the present. In three different scenes, the audience races down the same hospital aisle; under different circumstances but through nearly identical shots, the multiple casualties become intertwined. Equally, when Liyun and Haiyan are hospitalised at the same time, their diagnoses become tangled and it is unclear who the real centre of attention is. This interplay demands an enormous amount of audience concentration, as well as the perceptiveness to notice the undercurrent of subtle links that seep through the plot.   

The final note then resides in genre. That the film inserts itself so firmly within a realist narrative without imposing any political commentary is arguably what really allows tragedy to seep in. So Long, My Son is not meant to provoke or rile its audience, but rather to contemplate the fragility of life and examine the excruciating nature of loss. It is a tragedy with no one to scapegoat, with no political turmoil to blame, and this makes it all the more painful. Perhaps this is why we are privy to reject Yaojun’s early confession that ‘time stopped for us a long time ago, we are just waiting to grow old now,’ in the hope that the plot will unfurl into something positive, a reconciled series of events. In reality, the film exposes the kind of trauma that festers and blooms in continuous cycles; three hours suddenly feels like a small price to pay in comparison to the interminable suffering of Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun.  

So Long, My Son is no longer in cinemas but is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema. Check out the trailer below: 

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