I think that my response to 11 Flowers was definitely affected by the context of its screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of the Symposium on Chinese Film Distribution and Exhibition in the UK. The print was acquired via the Pan-Asian Film Festival in London where it was screened earlier in March. Although 11 Flowers is due to open in France in May there is currently no sign of a UK release. Given that writer/director Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the leading figures of what was once called the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers, this absence of a UK distribution deal says quite a lot about the poor state of British foreign language film distribution, especially from East Asia.
Wang was born in Shanghai 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was moving into gear in China. His parents were moved to Guizhou in South-Western China where the young Wang spent his early childhood. Wang’s earlier Shanghai Dreams (China 2005) told a fictional story about the later consequences of that kind of internal migration when a couple wish to move back to Shanghai in the 1980s but discover that their teenage daughter has become attached to a local boy. 11 Flowers has several features in common with the earlier film but this time the story is set in the mid 1970s and is much more autobiographical. The central character is a pre-teen boy in a small town in South-West China. He has three close friends and the little gang hang out at school and in the woods close to the town. The boy’s father is a singer/performer now forced into an unspecified job and his mother works in the local textiles factory. The boy is talented – he is learning to paint under his father’s guidance – and he has been chosen to lead the gymnastics display at his school. This requires that he has a new shirt. It is this shirt that will trigger the series of events that will involve the boy as an accidental participant in a local tragedy. (I won’t spoil the narrative just in case you do get the chance to see the film – suffice to say the tragedy is personal, but also offers a kind of commentary on the turmoil of the period.) The little family seems clearly modelled on Wang’s own since he was around this age in 1975, he did eventually become a fine artist and his parents did have similar jobs.
The use of the shirt as a narrative device in this way is reminiscent of the neo-realist films from Italy in the late 1940s when a seemingly mundane action might enable a clever scriptwriter to fashion an involving story from the reality of everyday lives in a local community. Wang achieved something similar in his best-known film released in the UK, Beijing Bicycle (1999) in which the theft of a poor young man’s new bicycle prompts a story about class divisions in the new Beijing. The new film’s story is rather different, largely because it is told from the child’s perspective. The tensions of community life towards the end of the Cultural Revolution are evident in the background and the unrest explains some of the actions which are not really understood by the children. Discussing the film afterwards with other members of the symposium it struck me that in some ways the film most resembled the humanist realist films of the 1950s. Pather Panchali (India 1955), Satyajit Ray’s early masterpiece, offers a child’s vision of a world in which parents struggle to make a home for their children and Wang certainly has the talent to offer something similar. Visually, the film is superb in its presentation of the grim industrial town and its rather beautiful hinterland of woods and riverside. For much of the film it is misty or raining – a suitably sombre setting for what is not a particularly jolly tale even as we are invited to respond to the humanity of the family and their friends.
But this isn’t a 1950s humanist tale. It is about that pivotal moment in Chinese history, just before the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1976. The weight of history and the re-working of personal memories in a film like this seems to me to have been done several times already. Of course, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be done again and again. It was for hundreds of thousands of people a terrible period in which lives were ruined. However, the story does need to be told differently each time or it becomes stale. Wang’s film is very slow and although this didn’t particularly bother me, one colleague said after the screening that he’d looked at his watch after 90 minutes and realised that nothing much else was going to happen in the next 25. The other point that we discussed after the screening was that this and similar stories are always told from the perspective of the intellectuals who were sent to the countryside. Less often do we get stories focused on the officials who were already there or the peasants/townspeople who have received the migrants into their communities. It’s for this reason that I found Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock intriguing since it offers an insight into the lives of PLA soldiers (albeit briefly in terms of this period). In 11 Flowers there are several characters such as the school principal, local police officers and others who I would have liked to learn more about. What was it like trying to “do your job” in your home town in the context of the upheavals during the 1966-76 period?
11 Flowers is certainly a well-made film (and one made with feeling) and I have to point out that the majority of quite a healthy audience for this one-off screening in Manchester clearly enjoyed the film very much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if there had been more songs and possibly more about painting – if perhaps it had been less realist and more of a melodrama? I have to confess also that I missed whatever the direct reference to flowers might be – although the boy was encouraged to learn how to paint like the French Impressionists. (I’ve since learned that the Chinese title is ‘Me, 11’ which makes much more sense.) I had the same thoughts that occurred to a reviewer of the film when it screened in the Pan-Asian Film Festival – that 11 Flowers is similar to another tale with similar ingredients that is also a Chinese/French co-production: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002). With so few Chinese films released in the UK it seems churlish to complain that those we do see often seem to tell the same story, but that is sometimes how it feels. Fortunately I have some DVDs from YesAsia to watch. In the meantime, if by any chance 11 Flowers gets a release, I’d still argue that it is worth seeing.