As I contemplate the sorry parade of slop being considered for Academy Awards tomorrow night (chief among them “Argo”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lincoln”, and “Django Unchained”), I consider myself fortunate to live in New York where an art theater circuit provides support for something like Wang Xiao-Shuai‘s “11 Flowers”. Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema, this mixture of a coming-of-age tale and commentary on the Cultural Revolution puts Hollywood to shame. Frankly, the idea of the Chinese military hacking American computers to steal this doddering imperialist nation’s intellectual property would seem to be a joke if Hollywood was factored in.
The eponymous flowers refer to a still life that 11 year old Wang Han (Liu Wenquing) is learning to paint from his father, a trained artist anxious to pass along the same skills to his son. But the son’s real passion is for leading his classmates in morning calisthenics, an ability coveted much more than artistry in such a regimented society. When young Wang learns that calisthenics leaders are required to wear a new white shirt, his mother tells him that they lack the funds. When he begins to sulk, she slaps and berates him.
This, the first instance of violence in the film, is part of the social fabric being ripped to shreds in the town with the low-intensity-warfare waged by Red Guards on the local “conservatives” spilling into the family circle. After Wang’s mother scrapes together the money for a new shirt, he is met by disaster. While playing down by the riverbanks, a man grabs his shirt and runs into a thicket of trees overlooking the river. Desperate to retrieve the shirt, Wang runs after him no matter the risks. When he catches up to him, he discovers that the shirt is being used to stanch the bleeding from a wound the man received fleeing the cops.
Eventually we discover that he is the son of an artist just like his father who has been banished from Shanghai for his “petty bourgeois deviations”. After the local chieftain of the Revolutionary Guards has raped his sister, he takes the law into his own hands and kills him.
Throughout the film you can see skirmishes between gangs of men on either side in the Cultural Revolution. The film does not attempt to provide a documentary-like explanation of the issues but is content to tell the story of how that upheaval conducted in the name of the class struggle poisoned human relationships throughout the country.
In one of the most illuminating scenes in this inspired film, Wang’s father has returned home with his head bloodied, a souvenir of a visit to a respected art professor who has also been banished to the boondocks. This is the gift bestowed upon him by a gang of Red Guards who were determined to punish the art professor for promoting “decadent” art.
The accusation does have a basis in fact as Wang’s father reveals a treasure that the art professor has bequeathed to his son. It is a collection of impressionist reproductions of the sort that can be purchased for a couple of dollars each in a museum store. For a nation that is anxious to purge every shred of “bourgeois” civilization, the reproductions become a challenge to national security.
Wang’s father explains the importance of Monet to him, saying that he was the first artist to abandon the studio and go directly out to see nature as it is without preconceptions. As you sit watching this extraordinarily beautiful film, you will understand that director Wang Xiao-Shuai must have incorporated these insights early in his career. He comes close to achieving the same intensity through his camera that Monet did through his palette.
Wang Xiao-Shuai is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, a reference to the post-1990s current that used low-budget “indie” techniques such as digital cameras matched to a neorealist esthetic, in other words the very type of film this reviewer treasures. Many of these filmmakers have run into heavy state censorship or are prevented from making films altogether. This is frequently a function of them presenting what amounts to a radical critique of Chinese crony capitalism found in a film like “Blind Shaft” or “Still Life”.
Wang Xia-Shuai’s press notes statement provides his personal experiences that map closely to those of his characters:
The story of 11 Flowers is infused with the memories of my life in Guiyang, in the province of Guizhou. In the mid ‘60s, my parents followed the Chinese government’s call asking families to move the main factories in charge of national production inland in order to defend China against a potential attack from the USSR. We left Shanghai to go and live in this poor province. I grew up in this countryside with my older sister, while our parents hoped to rapidly be able to go back to Shanghai. This period of my life left a profound mark on me. We lived in a small village that had been built for us near the Shanghai factory, then dismantled, then put together again. We felt the burden of the obligations my parents – and all other grown-ups in society – were tied down with. I saw how this movement and the Cultural Revolution changed them.
When I became an adult, I realized that very few people knew about the Third Front movement, which pushed these city-dwellers to live with their family in the middle of the countryside. In my films, it was important for me to speak about these people and their lives. I even started a documentary on the subject so that my parents and their friends could tell us why and how they lived there. One of my previous films, Shanghai Dreams, already had my life in the Guizhou province as a background. The film recounted these workers’ children awakening to the world, until their adolescence and their desire for independence. In 11 Flowers, the children are still young and do not understand the world that surrounds them. They do not question the situation they live in. This creates a gap between their point of view and the social and political backdrop.
“11 Flowers” is the best narrative film I have seen this year and will likely be at the top of my list for best of 2013, Hollywood be damned.