Over the course of a nearly two-decade career, director Wang Xiaoshuai (“Beijing Bicycle,” “So Close to Paradise,” “Drifters,” “Chongqing Blues”) has quietly amassed one of the most impressive filmographies of contemporary Chinese filmmakers. His latest, “11 Flowers,” is his most classically composed and one of his most emotionally affecting works, affording a unique, child’s-eye view of the Cultural Revolution.
Like his earlier “Shanghai Dreams” (2005), “11 Flowers” is an autobiographical portrait of a family in rural China, set in the Guizhou province in southern China, the actual place Wang’s family moved to from his birthplace of Shanghai. The 11-year old protagonist is based on Wang himself, who was the same age in 1975, the final year of the Cultural Revolution, during which the film is set. (The Chinese title of “11 Flowers” translates as “Me, 11.”) The personal nature of this material is reinforced by the fact that Wang himself delivers the voiceover that brackets the film, giving us the sense of an older man looking back on his childhood. “11 Flowers” impressively evokes the way a child would experience momentous and often violent historical events, usually only vaguely aware of the political and social circumstances that impact parents and elders.
The film closely focuses on one year in the life of Wang Han (Liu Wenqing), who lives in a rural, mountainous town with his father (Wang Jingchun), mother (Yan Ni), and younger sister (Zhao Shiqi). We are drawn slowly, with wonderfully engrossing detail and a vivid sense of place and time, into the daily life of this family in a factory town. “11 Flowers” is set in the so-called “Third Front” era, when the Chinese government decreed that factories and other important national industries be moved far inland to guard against potential attack from the Soviet Union. Many families were uprooted from the cities and forced to move into often very rough terrain, where basic supplies were very hard to come by. Many of these people were the “sent down” intellectuals directed by Mao Zedong to live and work in the countryside. One distinguishing feature of the town in this film is a huge, looming portrait of Chairman Mao, a constant reminder that government authorities were always watching.
Of course, such social and historical consciousness is far from the mind of Wang Han, who is much more concerned with smaller matters, but ones which to him are urgently pressing. He spends his days like any normal boy would, going to school and getting into mischief with his friends. His biggest crisis in the early scenes of the film is his need to acquire a new white shirt to wear when his teacher chooses him to lead the school’s morning exercises. He implores his mother for one; she at first strenuously resists, as making such a shirt will cost her a year’s worth of cloth rations. But after Wang Han’s relentless begging, and a meeting with his teacher, she relents and makes the shirt for him. The pride with which he wears the shirt to school, and the way he treasures it, is quite palpable and endearing.
However, Wang Han’s bliss is short-lived. One day, while playing with his friends on a riverbank, he passes out suddenly. When he comes to, he finds his shirt has gone missing. He accuses his friends of stealing it, but it soon turns up downriver. Sometime after he retrieves it and hangs it on a branch to dry, he is confronted by Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), a runaway fugitive who has just murdered a factory boss who raped his sister Juehong (Mo Shiyi), an older classmate of Wang Han’s. Juequiang grabs Wang Han’s shirt to stanch his bloody wound. He promises Wang Han a new shirt, but also threatens to kill Wang Han if he tells anyone where he is.
At this point, the film’s gentle, rather nostalgic mood (albeit with hints of more disturbing events on the periphery), changes into something darker, and the tenor of violence and political terror of the time comes more to the fore. However, we never leave Wang Han’s consciousness, and we are placed squarely in his point of view, knowing that very significant things are happening, but not really understanding their meaning. The internecine fighting among the Red Guards, as well as the political repression which causes everyone to be fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing and being disappeared, begins to color everything that happens to Wang Han. The most visible sign of this troubled era comes when Wang Han’s father comes home with a head wound from being involved in one of the many brawls that arose from political differences.
Even though their troubles are largely outside Wang Han’s purview, “11 Flowers” is quite perceptive in rendering the sadness and disillusionment of many of the adults he lives around. Many of them were writers, actors, and artists. Wang Han’s father is one, and he encourages his son to be one, too, giving him lessons on famous Western artists, telling him, “You can paint whatever you like,” with the implied meaning that this pursuit is less likely to be scrutinized by the authorities. These men and women toil away, their intellects wasted and unvalued in meaningless, dreary factory work, living lives of wasted potential and economic privation.
Although Wang Han’s situation with the murderer is a scary one, it is also an exciting one for him, and despite Juequiang’s warning he can’t resist telling his friends about it, in order to impress them and add a sense of adventure to their lives. This adds some comic touches to the film, and is a testament to Wang Xiaoshuai’s skill in creating a richly nuanced tapestry of character and incident, lending emotional immediacy to often distant and impersonal renderings of historical events.
“11 Flowers,” co-written by Wang and Lao Ni, beautifully uses the mode of the nostalgic, coming-of-age tale to give us a unique perspective on the Cultural Revolution, deftly traversing a middle ground between unquestioning propaganda (usually found in films of that period), and the more direct criticism found in such films as Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Blue Kite,” or more recently, Wang Bing’s “The Ditch.” It is deliberate and unhurried in its pacing, but quite riveting and emotionally moving. “11 Flowers” is visually striking, as well; the richly evocative cinematography by Dong Jinsong and the subtly nuanced editing by Nelly Quettier (best known for her work with Claire Denis) greatly contribute to the film’s indelibly memorable quality.
Meniscus Magazine is proud to be a sponsor of the 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival. “11 Flowers” screens on November 5 at 4:35 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s website.