Unpacking So Long, My Son is no mean feat. It is a lot. The emotions that it’s trying to convey are huge, and complex, and stretched across a long time narratively, and a long time in the cinema, breaking the three-hour mark. The filmmaking aims for maximum, ‘audience made to feel helpless’ impact. It opens with three scenes designed to gut punch you in juxtaposition, putting familial intimacy next to helpless tragedy.
Now I’m in an interesting situation here as a critic and reviewer. This is a celebrated film, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, the first three reviews listed are all 5/5s. It is clearly resonating with critics, and I… didn’t care for it. Most people coming here are going to want to hear its praises sung, and that’s not really the thing that I have to say about it. So I’m going to start with the positives, and well, if you love the film I advise you to stop reading after I’m done with them.
If you’re looking for a tonal comparison, the best I can really give you is Shoplifters, or In The Mood For Love. However, this movie is an entirely different kind of thing. It’s an ‘epic of intimacy’. The high watermark for which is probably Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. It’s big, it’s slow, it’s epic in scope, and covers a vast amount of time, and the film has about 11 different endings. However, unlike The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, it’s really, really quiet. You don’t get explosions in real life but inside people’s hearts. If you’re after a purposely made, beautifully observed, astonishingly acted piece, and those are your only criteria for goodness, you’ll probably really dig this. It is also very worthy of respect that a filmmaker working in the Chinese film industry found ways to sneak in very sly social satire. The film constantly undercuts the bluster of China’s government. A big, boldly colored, militaristic sign in a hospital reading ‘silence’ is totally ignored by wailing, broken, grieving parents. There’s a constant subtext of cynicism towards a culture of silence. Not addressing things, not speaking their name, brushing them under the carpet, are the real evils in this movie.
This does lead me onto my first criticism though, because although the film does have a social satire to it, it does have a lot of other elements that strike me as vaguely… propagandistic? Not that that’s the filmmaker’s fault per se, Chinese governments are famously censorious, and it may well have been the only way he could get the film made. That being said it is very suspect that a film with the moral ‘the single child policy is bad, this family should have been allowed to have a second child’ would come out just four years after the single child policy was upgraded to a double child policy. The film is also most critical of governments before Xi Jinping’s, Xi Jinping having only come into power in 2012 after massive political scandal. The film does also give off the idea that the reason we should immediately identify with this family is because they’re good, hard, manual workers, and when everyone else is moving to the south to have higher-paying, white-collar jobs in a new market economy (which the film is also critical of), the main characters moved to this area to have these manual labour jobs because they felt it was their duty as citizens. The film also has its own little mock worker’s uprising against the filthy, greedy, comically ridiculous & pompous business owners. Now like I said, this was probably a governmental imposition to allow funding, there is governmental critique to pick up on here and the critique is much more subtle than the propagandist elements, but anything coming across as propagandistic from a country that has secret re-education camps for religions they don’t like that function as concentration camps leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s also true that propaganda doesn’t necessarily mean bad work. For propaganda to function and succeed in its aims it most of the time has to function as a successful piece of art on its own terms. Works of Sergei Eisenstein like Battleship Potemkin & Strike are some of the best films ever made, but I have many, many other problems with the film.
The fact that I feel like the main reason we’re meant to identify with these characters because they’re good workers is that there is literally nothing else to latch onto character-wise, so what else is left? I referenced In The Mood For Love and Shoplifters for this film but the thing about those films, and the work of both directors, in general, is how imbued with humanity they are. How clear and precise those characters are, how much you like them for who they are, flaws and positives, all. I mean, this film does borrow the Wong Kar-Wai technique of taking one song and repeating it again and again and again until I slowly get a migraine. Really though, if you asked me to tell you one thing, one defining character trait of any of the characters in this movie, the only thing I could really say is, ‘sad’. These characters are two-dimensional cyphers for the themes the director is interested in, not actual people with wants & desires and things I can actually name about who they are as people. They are not people, they are tools to be cruelly manipulated and shoved around by the director for emotional button pushing.
The movie also shuffles between time frames similar to Slaughterhouse-Five. In a very Vonnegutian way, the film has landed on the way trauma collapses time in the mind and makes everything bleed together because everything reminds you of that trauma so you’re constantly existing in all points of your life at once. I think that was the point Vonnegut was making anyway. I like the idea a lot, just in the moment I actually found it very difficult to know exactly where I was at any one point, which might have been the idea but it wasn’t very narratively rewarding in the moment. I mean, I can place it all together in retrospect just at the time it didn’t feel like I was being impressively challenged by the movie in a way that made me reevaluate narrative, because frankly, it’s not a very original conceit, it just felt annoying and full of itself.
Now there are films that are respectable but miss the mark, and I like them, I can watch them, and there are ones that are over three hours long – three hours of disappointment, frustration, and sitting in a cinema wishing you could be anywhere else, watching something else. I saw this film right after seeing Bait, a revolutionary, innovative piece of cinema. After that, seeing this film and it floundering around in the urine puddle of its own brilliance, was frustrating. It is too long, and there were many points I told the movie in my head that it really has successfully made its point, you need to finish, you need to leave. You need to let me out of here before I murder someone.
Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what you think of me at the moment, so I’m going to wrap up. I am seemingly, totally alone in not really liking this movie at all. So you should go see it if this is the kind of thing you’re after. I just really, really didn’t get on with it much at all.
D- Review bait battleship potemkin D- in the mood for love martin scorsese sergei eisenstein shoplifters slaughterhouse five so long my son strike the age of innocence the lord of the rings return of the king wong kar-wai