Grief, and some joy, in a decades-spanning Chinese saga

BERLIN (Reuters) - “So Long My Son”, a decades-spanning Chinese saga that opens in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, was born of a need to re-assess a generation that had no time for introspection as it built modern China, its director Wang Xiaoshuai said.

Actor Wang Yuan arrives for the screening of the movie "Di jiu tian chang" (So Long, My Son) at the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Four years in the making, Wang’s three-hour epic, which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday, tells the story of a family that deals with hardship, grief and some joy during China’s emergence from the chaos of the late 1970s to become today’s economic superpower.

“In the years after the Cultural Revolution, there was a slogan ‘Look forward and don’t think about the past’,” said Wang, describing his parents’ generation’s resolve to focus on work after the economic and human disaster of Mao Zedong’s policy of purge and urban deportation.

“But now, with the economy having made certain strides, you need to take a fresh look at that phrase. We do need the to draw lessons from the past in order to avoid making unnecessary mistakes,” he said.

In the early 1980s, a young couple, played by Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, lead a modest but secure existence at a state-owned factory, comfortable in a one-room flat in a factory dormitory.

Their lives are turned upside down by the death of their son, by their decision to abide by China’s then “One Child Policy” and by Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, which cost them their jobs and the “Iron Ricebowl” of comfortable subsistence it guaranteed.

The two lead actors give a powerful portrayal of humans bowed by the weight of having lived a life too full of pain and experience, and reveal at the end an almost saintly capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation.

“I’m interested in people’s ability to love and their inner benevolence in China,” the director said. “My parents and grandparents have gone through so much but are still very brave and optimistic... That’s a very moving thing.”

The film was originally due to be one of two major Chinese works to close the festival, but earlier this week the festival announced that Zhang Yimou’s One Second, set during the 1966-76 Cultural Revoluion could not be shown “for technical reasons”.

Wang Xiaoshuai declined to comment on speculation that state censorship had led to the film’s cancellation. “I really felt for them because it’s tough making a film,” saying he knew nothing about the circumstances of the cancellation, though he added that the censorship process had become more complex.

Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Toby Chopra