So Long, My Son

Wang Xiaoshuai's epic Chinese drama has a lot to say about family caught in the tide of history – and has trouble saying it

Film Review by Thomas Atkinson | 03 Dec 2019
  • So Long, My Son
Film title: So Long, My Son
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Starring: Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei
Release date: 6 Dec
Certificate: 12A

“You can’t run forever,” contends one character partway through Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son. And yet, run is all that Yaojun and Liyun can think to do. They’re bereaved parents, grieving in the film’s opening stretch for their drowned son, Xingxing. To run from the idea of sincerely facing up to that truth, a jump forward by about a decade shows us that they have now adopted a second son – also called Xingxing. He’s a troubled child. He’s now missing; run off of his own accord, he might as well have disappeared from their lives completely. History repeats.

Wang glides back and forth between these periods with total liberation. Within a timeline stretching from the 1980s to around the present day, jumps backwards by a couple of decades come without warning, and would be jarring if Wang weren’t so unapologetic about it. Instead of a marked flashback, the jump is seamless, like time has been collapsed on itself. The peaks and troughs of China’s recent history, as well as that of Liyun and Yaojun’s relationship, are chopped up and reordered, perhaps to enforce Wang’s assertion that the weight of time is unbeatable. Whether it’s a country or a couple, history can’t be outrun.

It’s a shame Wang doesn’t find more poetry in this. The parallel of the central relationship with the complicated, monumental history of the country is, in essence, a symbol for the intertwining of the nation’s government and its people. For example, China’s one-child policy was a quintessential joining of individual freedom with state regulation. But the execution of this elliptical timeline, with destiny seeming to control the lives of the protagonists, offers little mirrored imagery, or any structural innovation. Though his broader point about history’s encumbrance is made, everything else is a little vague, in spite of the film’s three-hour runtime. 

Released 6 Dec by Curzon; certificate 12A