Coming to international attention in 2001 with his social drama Beijing Bicycle, Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai has been on the rise ever since. His latest film, So Long, My Son (2019), premiered at the Berlinale in an edition marked by a couple of films pulled out at the last-minute films by China. Surprisingly, So Long, My Son was granted the “dragon seal”—the Chinese mark of censorship approval—and started scooping prizes for its leading couple’s staggering performances.
A graciously elaborated, time-leaping tale of loss and friendship, So Long, My Son attempts to catalogue all the political and cultural changes China went through in over the last three decades. Opening on the dramatic apparent death by drowning of Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun’s (Yong Mei) son Xingxing while playing at a reservoir with his best friend Haohao, the film then glides across a meticulously devised, disjointed story. In the present, Yaojun and Liyun live together with an adopted son in a remote coastal town, while Haiyan (Al Liya), her husband, and their son Haohao thrive in one of China’s rapidly evolving big cities. Numerous flashbacks serve to put the pieces of the puzzle together as they tell the story of modern China through the draconian measures of the Chinese government and the eroding friendship between the two families. The country’s one-child policy is at the same time the crux and the trigger of the film’s main narrative knot, but other societal changes are equally registered. From the years of the Cultural Revolution, which are briefly remembered by Yaojun in one of the earliest flashbacks, to the migration fluxes between the densely populated cities and the impoverished countryside, the end result is a fascinating and multi-layered account of a fast-changing country.
Wang is not unfamiliar with such investigations of the past. As a child, he lived through the Cultural Revolution, and while he had to move away from his hometown, Shanghai, to settle in a countryside that never felt as his own, he eventually returned to the city—Wuhan first and then Beijing where he started to study painting—but ended up feeling like he wasn’t belonging to this urban reality either. Both his personal history and his country’s transformations are explored in his films. From the almost autobiographical 11 Flowers (2011) to his first films—The Days (1993) and So Close To Paradise (1998), among others—where urban landscapes influence and are shaped by the characters followed by his camera, Wang truly embodies the ethos of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers: ever individualistic yet rooted in their country’s morphing cultural soil.
I spoke with Wang about his process writing such a saga, re-creating China’s recent past, experiencing the Cultural Revolution, and working with actors.
NOTEBOOK: What I found most interesting in So Long, My Son is that you decided to embrace non-linear storytelling so that past and present perfectly coexist. How did you come up with this formal choice?
WANG XIAOSHUAI: The film spans over three decades, from the ‘80s until pretty much today. The beginning and the ending of the film are fixed in time though, as it starts some thirty years ago to end in the present. When I was writing the script, it felt like I was standing on a very high building and, looking down, I could see all the cars and the traffic jams. It’s like a God’s eye view. If I had decided to shoot the film linearly, it would have been an extremely long film, as I should have included a lot more story. That’s why I decided to cut it and write the script in a way I could then be in control of all the story so to be able to reconstruct all the important moments in the main family’s life quite freely.
NOTEBOOK: Can you articulate a bit more how you worked on the script?
WANG: I’ve written so many different drafts of it. At first, I wrote all the stories chronologically but then I realized that it would have been too difficult to shoot the film like that because of the changes China was going through. Also, it would have been impossible for me to build all the locations anew and then reshoot every scene. At that point, I decided to rewrite the script and shoot the scenes accordingly. In this way, I could control it better. Then, when I got to edit the film, it seemed that all the scenes fit the script. I think I just need to picture everything in my mind before shooting.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of China’s high-speed building (re)development practice, was it hard to build the settings for the many scenes set in the past?
WANG: Oh yeah, it was really difficult to do that. China is changing fast and Chinese people are really proud of it. They love to build new things and leave the past behind. So for films like So Long, My Son or Shanghai Dreams  that are set in the ‘70s and ‘80s setting up locations is a daunting task. For example, for So Long, My Son I wanted to use this city in Mongolia but to shoot there I needed some financial support from local authorities, which unfortunately wasn’t granted in the end, so I had to partly rewrite the script because I didn’t have the money to build a brand-new setting.
NOTEBOOK: And when you did need to reconstruct a set, did you use photographs, old video, or archive footage for reference?
WANG: We researched a lot to find out how things looked like in the past, but it’s important to remember that, no matter how precise your reconstruction is, there’s no way you can travel back in time and capture the real essence of bygone eras. Take clothes for example, you can ask a costume designer to follow the shapes of any piece of clothing worn in the past but the fabric will obviously be different. It’s the same with people. You can put actors in a costume, work some magic with makeup but in the end they’re just modern people. Making feature films, but also period ones, is just so different from documentary filmmaking. For So Long, My Son I had a look at lots of photos taken by French or English photographers who travelled to China in the past that now act like some kind of tokens of our past memories.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve mentioned French and English travellers. Now that So Long, My Son has been released both in China and in several European countries, do you think the film has been received differently by different audiences?
WANG: It’s very difficult to say [laughs]. I wanted to make a film that could be seen as a real Chinese story, that could encapsulate our need to remember our past as well as how we evolved over three decades. So in the film you can see what people eat, the different relationships they establish both with children and co-workers but also how China’s one-child policy impacted Chinese people’s lives. I’m pretty sure that people everywhere in the world would be moved watching the film and would definitely understand what happens. I really wanted to bring the audience into our apartments, our living rooms, our bedrooms. But ultimately, I think I made this film for a Chinese audience.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking about China’s one-child policy, I was wondering what is your relationship with censorship? Do you feel that it has hindered your creativity somehow?
WANG: Censorship has always been a major problem in China. That said, I think I’ve been lucky that I always managed to do what I wanted to do without having to listen to other people who were trying to stop me. In the case of So Long, My Son, I wrote the script myself, so the story, the characters, the very idea, everything in it is mine. My goal was simply to showcase our history, our own reality, our lives, and emotions, so I just don’t care about censorship. There are so many things we still cannot address in films, or in art in general, because they’re too political, but in this case, I felt I was finally free to show this story without fear.
NOTEBOOK: Another thing that ties people together in your film is music. In particular, the Scottish ballad “Auld Lang Syne” seems to hold a special place in the film’s score, which also features a Chinese version playing in one of the early scenes. Is the song popular in China?
WANG: You can’t imagine how popular “Auld Lang Syne” is in China! In Chinese, it’s called something like “Friendship will last forever,” as it mainly talks about friendship, so there’s not a single political element in it. I think this is the reason why it survived so many different eras of China’s modern history and became such a popular song. I still remember my parents and the older generations singing this song. When it came to this film that centers on the strong friendship that binds the two families together, I thought that it could fit it perfectly, so it came quite natural to use it.
NOTEBOOK: One of your most recent films, Red Amnesia, dealt with issues of guilt and with how an entire generation decided not to address their past mistakes. Similarly, guilt is a key theme in So Long, My Son haunting both Haiyan and Haohao. In particular, Haiyan is tormented by having forced Liyun to abort her second pregnancy although such a decision was in line with her role in the Chinese society at the time. As, in your films, no judgement seems to be passed over characters like Haiyan and Deng, I wonder how much social circumstances can impact on a person’s actions and if now such people can be forgiven and somehow redeemed in light of the inescapable role society gave them to adhere to?
WANG: I’m so glad you also watched Red Amnesia. When making that film—and So Long, My Son as well—I wanted to focus on ordinary people to put them in contrast with the general political environment we had in the past. During the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent years, there were people unable to judge the situation by themselves, who couldn’t really understand if something was good or bad, so they ended up blaming the government for everything that happened. When shooting both Red Amnesia and So Long, My Son I think that the general feeling towards characters like Deng and Haiyan was something like “you had a job, you did what you had to do, it’s not your fault, it really wasn’t your fault.” It’s a very complicated political knot…
NOTEBOOK: I figured! Watching So Long, My Son I really had the feeling that all the other characters were somehow inclined to forgive Haiyan because they knew that, in other circumstances, it could have been them to be forced to do something they would later regret. I’d like to know if this could be a general feeling in China right now.
WANG: I can’t really say. There might be a thousand or a million of people that still do what they’re told without thinking with their own heads. I’m a filmmaker, so I feel I’ve been invested with the task to face reality and talk about these things that the older generations decided not to address.
NOTEBOOK: When watching Beijing Bicycle, I was impressed by the stubbornness and resilience of its main character—Guei—which reminded me of Teacher Wei’s determination in Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. At the same time, the film also bears similarities with Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. What kind of films usually influence you and how do you work with these influences?
WANG: As you can imagine, when I was at the film academy I watched plenty of films and many scenes and frames got stuck with me. When I was seventeen, I remember watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up and being really impressed by how modern the film looked at the time. It’s not even my favorite film but it was a sort of first love for me. You never forget your first love [laughs]. So when I finally started making films, I told myself “You better not be influenced by the big directors now.” But then, of course, I watched other films like the ones by Jean-Luc Godard and De Sica. Bicycle Thieves really touched me and, even though the film is set in Italy, the grim working-class reality and the relationship between father and son reminded me of China a lot. Growing up, I found myself being more and more influenced by Eastern films—Japanese, but also Iranian films. The latter, in particular. I find that the emotions displayed in Iranian films are somehow closer to Chinese people.
NOTEBOOK: You were born in 1966 so you experienced the Cultural Revolution as a child. Could you talk about your memories of the period? Has any of them influenced or inspired your films?
WANG: This is quite interesting. It’s the first time I’ve been asked this kind of question. Thank you. The Cultural Revolution began in the ‘60s so my childhood was quite special, in a way. I lived in the countryside during the first decade of my life but even there we were still influenced by the big changes happening in the country. I remember that when I was out playing with other kids, we saw big dormitories with many cannon holes in them but for us children everything was really exciting. We were fearless. I think that all my memories from that period boil down to a slogan, a song we had to sing. We couldn’t really express ourselves freely. We had to be the sort of citizens who love the party, who love the country. Clearly, such a mindset influence people a lot, even today. For me, things are different. I studied Fine Arts, I’m a filmmaker and I make film, so I’m trying to build my own voice, to convey what I really think and feel.
NOTEBOOK: You’re part of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, how would you describe the cinema of the directors who fall into the same group? Do you feel your films are still true to the ethos of the generation’s first films, or have they evolved somehow?
WANG: I think that when it comes to the filmmakers of the Sixth Generation what’s most important to notice is that we were too young to experience the Cultural Revolution directly, but we were also lucky to be more exposed to Western influences. As I was studying painting, I was really impressed by the fact that Western artists could express their individuality in their work, that they could adopt different styles. In China it is different, almost the opposite. I think that the Sixth Generation is like those Western artists: we express ourselves and our individuality, not our country’s history or reality. As time passes, people change I think [laughs], so I’m not sure we will be faithful to the first ideas that inspired our work. As for me, I’ll keep trying to do the same things, to be true to my ideals.
NOTEBOOK: In the first films of the Sixth Generation, non-professional actors were often used. For example, director Lou Ye starred in your directorial debut, The Days, and you did the same starring in his, Weekend Lover . What’s your relationship with actors?
WANG: [laughs] Yes, I did something like that in the past! When we were young and we wanted to make films we really didn’t have a big budget so, yeah, we always helped each other the best we could. At the time, we worked with non-professional actors and actresses, which made everything quite relaxed, but now we have a bigger budget so we often rely on professional ones and it’s really great when you establish a good relationship with them, especially when it’s based on trust. For Beijing Bicycle the two young leads both won an award in Berlin [the New Talent Award awarded to Cui Lin and Li Bin] and also for So Long, My Son we won the Silver Bear for best actor and actress. At the latest Golden Rooster Awards, Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei once again won awards for their performances and I’m really proud of that. So, obviously, if you’re a very good actor and you want to work with me, I’m happy, but, in the end, I don’t care how famous you are—you just need to fit with the character I have in my mind. That’s all.
NOTEBOOK: We’ve finally arrived at the very last question. What do you think will be the future of Chinese cinema?
WANG: Well, I think that the most important thing for the future of Chinese cinema would be for the country to give its artists, its film directors, more freedom to write their scripts. There are so many things happening in China and so many great stories we could make films on. But as for the whole political environment… the censorship is still there.