But I'll be damned if the movie that keeps jumping in my brain isn't Bob Clark's A Christmas Story, if only for the completely trivial matter of Wang Han's (Liu Wenqing) attachment to his white shirt. Of course, Wang Han's obsession over obtaining the white spectacle that will allow him to shine on stage as he guides his classmates through their daily exercises has absolutely nothing to do with the materialistic values put on display through Ralphie's all-consuming desire to fire off a Red Ryder BB gun. But they both do, in fact, put on display the grasp a country's collective values holds over its naive youth.
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Co-screenwriter: Lao Ni
Just wants a new shirt, for Christ's sake: Liu Wenqing
Reminds me of why Poetry is so damn depressing: Mo Shiyi
Yan..ni?: Yan Ni
This is a coming-of-age film, so here's the overbearing father who's really just trying to help: Wang Jingchun
What It's Good For:
-great coming-of-age film
-depicting China's Cultural Revolution
-showing parents that they should try harder to understand their children's problems
-showing kids that being a parent is super hard
-reminds you how fucked up China's gender politics are
-no, but seriously, the revelation in this movie will depress you
-pretty slooooooow, lot's of talking
-it's a foreign film, for all those who care about that
For Ralphie, the Red Ryder is both an object of desire and a classic example of son believing he knows better than his mother. A representation of the westerns he's grown up loving and the inherent good-in-the-face-of-outright-evil it represents. "Was there no end to the conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?" Ralphie asks, likening a violent weapon with social harmony. His mother recognizes that one's eye could indeed be shot out and remains uninfluenced by the all-encompassing faux-tranquil aura the gun represents. Ralphie envisions a fantasy where he fends off robbers who are attempting to break into his home—the gun is, in his mind, altogether good in its vanquishing of evil. The mother, however, recognizes the safety implications that come with selling such a manufactured and material-driven ideology, and thus becomes at odds with her son. Immersed in the world of materialism as a mother buying Christmas gifts, the holiday season suddenly carries a societal weight that directly contradicts the money-can-buy-love attitude enforced by the likes of, say, Jingle All the Way. The mother's refusal to buy the gun represents the love for her son—his anger represents how Ralphie's love is correlated with material possessions, putting on display the power of consumerism.
Wang Han and his mother experience a similar power struggle in 11 Flowers. There is an object that drives the course of their relationship: the white shirt that Wang Han whines, moans, and pouts over until his mother caves in. Wang Han simply observes his newly appointed position in leading class exercises as an honor to his country during China's Cultural Revolution. This "honor" really goes no deeper than, say, a materialistic attachment to a piece of clothing, which the mother quickly recognizes. She speaks with Wang Han's teacher, claiming that clothing rations are in short supply, noting the financial struggles that came with the revolution Wang Han has passionately attached himself to. And, much like A Christmas Story, her compliance comes to own a symbolic moment of awakening for Wang Han. Much like Ralphie experiencing the antithesis of his peacemaker when his BB ricochets, Wang Han's narrow view of the revolution is shaken to the core when an on-the-run murderer steals his glistening white shirt, stains it blood-red, and then drags Wang Han through the forest in a treacherous turn of events.
What this young murderer comes to represent on a symbolic societal level marks the unfurling of 11 Flowers' thematic power, where the revolution's influence and manipulation coincides with a character's psychological trajectory. It is also what elevates any coming-of-age film's humanistic underlining: with one's nationalism and cultural influence dangerously shadowing overhead, the ability to transcend the political psychological turmoil creates the most honest representation of personal growth. Wang Han's personal journey amidst such cultural change is so implicative and refined that it may seem secondary, but, in fact, such seeming inattentiveness only remains vague because of the looming monstrous revolution. The subtleties of Xiaoshuai's camerawork lend weight to the intimately sprawling script and (along with co-writer Lao Ni) necessarily elevate the personal growth over the Cultural Revolution—an enveloping statement about the power of self in the face of individuality's worst enemy.
My biggest complaint of Norwegian Wood—yet another recent coming-of-age tale—was how the varied and disconnected camerawork in no way, shape, or form created an understanding of Toru's budding romantic desires in the face of national upheaval. Hopped up on too much caffeine, director Anh Hung Tran pans horizontally and vertically within seconds of one another, hovers closely and far away with the same apprehensiveness, and, most confusingly and abruptly, employs a first-person view for Toru as he walks with Naoko. The only consistent entity of Norwegian Wood is Johnny Greenwood's brooding score, which actually captures how the personal afflictions overshadow the larger societal context.
Xiaoshuai similarly employs a steady flow of first-person shots in 11 Flowers, yet they carry an entirely different aura and relevance. A slow-burning, somewhat static, almost voyeuristic distance is normally kept, which remains adamantly consistent throughout the film. These first-person shots are truly anomalies in an otherwise sobering portrait, instantly creating a sense that there is indeed concrete reasoning at play. If most of Xiaoshuai's shots hover from a distance, rarely ever utilizing close-ups, then the first-person shots gain a sudden invasion of personal space that's always accompanied with eavesdropping. His friends discussing the murderer at the river; his parents discussing politics at the dinner table; his older classmates discussing the rape of a young girl--all of these scenes are shot to convey a discombobulated Wang Han, representing the confusion in the face of his unrequited infatuation for his country's revolution. Wang Han's friends discuss catching fish as Wang Han hovers from a distance, bending down between his legs, observing from upside down (in a first-person shot). This instantly creates a skewed worldview that contradicts the blind attachment he's formed, which was only enhanced by his appointment as head of morning exercises, conveniently accompanied by leading the class' rendition of the country's national anthem. In this instance, Wang captures tadpole in his hand, while his friends scream at one another about stealing fish. The juxtaposition between catching a tadpole and catching a grown fish challenges the vast difference between he and his mother's ideals (or his lack of ideals). The fish discussion turns into hushed whispering about the murderer—the man who directly shakes Wang's foundation and challenges his senseless love for country.
For Wang Han, his hushed agreement with the young murderer represents his awakening. Here is this murderer, the antithesis to everything Wang Han blindly loves about his country's revolution, being hunted down by the very adults who shaped Wang Han, and yet he feels compelled to protect him. The natural gumption to rebel against society's ideals allows these protagonists to see society's priorities more clearly.
For Xiao, it was the slippery slope of gang violence; for Cyril, it was tying himself to a neglectful father; for Marji, it was radicalizing her parents' political beliefs; and for Julien, it was attempting to befriend a Jewish student during WWII.
And, for Wang Han, it was blindly attaching himself to his country's cultural revolution. For soon we learn that this murderer in fact killed a rapist, who had abused his sister (and Wang Han's classmate) Jue Hong (Mo Shiyi). Wang Han often observes Jue Hong from a distance, whether it's waiting to be scolded outside of class or performing the morning exercises, entrenched in fear and willful submissiveness, and unknowing of the horrors that plague her.
Wang Han receives snippets of this sick realization that's soon to come, mostly in the form of those finely utilized first-person moments, such as when Wang Han bobs up and down in the school's pool, hearing fragments of his classmate's knowledge of the crime. But the most striking and debilitating revelations arise in Jue Hong's home. Finally within closed quarters, Wang Han learns that the murderer's father attempted to hide the raping of his daughter—a moment Caroline McKenzie points out as "the personal shame the Cultural Revolution has brought him." Upon realizing the horrors of the revolution Wang Han pushed away for so long, his first-person perspective switches from his father to Jue Hong, who changes her clothes. Wang Han's father is shrouded in doorway beads, while Jue Hong remains in full view, turned away from the men, face only seen in the mirror.
"I can't remember if I heard the shots. Shortly after, China experienced major upheavals. All these memories are fixed in my mind. That year, I was 11."
The other notable aspect of coming-of-age films: no resolution. For this is only the beginning—a shifting event in one's psyche that must occur in youth. Just as countries must grow and learn from their mistakes, Wang Han (along with Xiao, Cyril, Marji, and Julien) experiences such growth evolution alongside societal upheaval. But as China shifts into its next phase, its future remains every bit as out of reach and unpredictable as Wang Han's teenage years. Ambiguity, it would seem, is the most honest conclusion.
Did I Like It:
Why yes I did! Thanks for asking.
Xiaoshuai did a fantastic job with his shot selection. Very disciplined, always keeping in line with Wang Han's psyche and growth. I wish he was more ambitious with the screenplay, though. It's very intimate, but honestly plays it safe most of the time, minus an on-the-loose murderer wrestling Wang Han to the ground. Xiaoshuai said the film was autobiographical, so I'm sure he kept everything tame because...well, that's how it happened. Which I appreciate.
I think the Cultural Revolution hangs in the background a little bit too much. It looms, but never really gains a personality. The Revolution is personified through the horrible acts committed by the men of the film, ranging from rape to deserved murder, but there's disconnectedness between these men and Wang Han. They're too removed and foggy. I guess that's the point? Wang Han doesn't understand the men/Revolution he blindly adheres to. But I think there should have been more correlation.
Although, if there had been more correlation, the movie might not have felt so real, which is really a great feature of this film. It's almost voyeuristic at times. Which I like.
Because I'm sick in the head.