11flowersShanghai-born director Wang Xiaoshuai has been waiting to make his latest film, 11 Flowers, for 20 years. When he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1989, he had already written the script for his semi-autobiographical account of growing up in tough inland China during one of the country’s toughest historical periods. But it has taken until now for him to bring the story to the screen.

‘Both my parents worked at the Third Front,’ he says when we meet in Beijing. ‘In 1966, Mao ordered many Mainlanders – a lot of them intellectuals like my father – to leave cities such as Shanghai or Beijing to work at factories in impoverished rural areas in preparation against possible attack by the Soviet Union. I have a strong emotional connection with the people who lived and continue to live there.’

It’s not the first time Wang has visited the subject. The 45-year-old director, heralded as a leading member of China’s so-called ‘Sixth Generation’ of filmmakers, journeyed to the countryside inShanghai Dreams (2005), for which he won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (Wang’s films, including Chongqing Blues andDrifters, often crop up in competition at Cannes.) Like 11 Flowers,Shanghai Dreams is a semi-autobiographical account of a family in Guizhou province – the place Wang and his real-life family were sent – who long to return to the city.

Though 11 Flowers returns to familiar ground, it’s the writer-director’s most accomplished work to date. Both a coming-of-age film and an account of Cultural Revolution history too often overlooked by directors (with the exception of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City), the film follows 11-year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing), who lives with his parents in a rural part of China’s southwest in 1975, a year before Mao’s death. Though shot from the child’s perspective with fittingly lucid camerawork, the violence and internalised anguish that pockmark the period are never far from the screen. Savage gang wars between Red Guards and Wang Han’s artist-father’s bottomless disillusionment are harsh reminders of the reality surrounding the child.

At the start of the film however, Wang Han’s biggest problem is persuading his mother to spend the family’s yearly clothing ration on a new white shirt. Things change for Wang Han when this shirt – itself a symbol of soiled innocence – is seized by a fugitive in the woods to staunch a wound. The pair establish a Whistle Down The Wind-style friendship eventually prompting Wang Han’s childhood, like the Cultural Revolution churning around him, to draw to a close.

The idea behind 11 Flowers came from Wang’s real-life encounter with a fugitive when he was 11. Accordingly, the film adopts many details from the director’s life in the Third Front era. ‘Like Wang Han I had a group of friends and we considered ourselves a gang,’ says Wang, ‘which is kind of ridiculous, but we even swore brotherhood. In the end scenes you see the kids running across the fields just to watch an execution. That happened a lot in my childhood. We ran after the truck carrying the criminals. We thought it was fun.’

Wang Han is taught to paint by his father, something the director’s own father, who had taught theatre in Shanghai, also did. Painting was deemed ‘safer’ than theatre at the time.

Clothes, too, were precious. ‘The whole family would only have two or three new items a year,’ says Wang. Everything was rationed: ‘if an elder brother grew quickly, he used the family’s clothing ration for the year. The younger children would have to wait for his cast-offs. We were so excited every Spring Festival because we got to wear new clothes.’

Though Wang says the film captures the mood of the Third Front era, as a record, like memory itself, it’s flawed. ‘We always remember our childhood based on carefree, vivid details,’ he says. ‘We use a lot of fadeouts on the boy, like having him disappear into the darkness, or into the woods. That’s how memories are to me – close to the heart yet impossible to recreate.’ In the film Wang Han’s own vision is often obscured, half-comprehending: point-of-view shots peek through bathhouse steam and tangled branches, or are submerged underwater.

‘I’m trying to cover Wang Han’s inner life as a child, but I also want to comment on the period as who I am now,’ says Wang. Aside from a lifelong affection for the countryside (‘sometimes I want to run away from cities like Beijing or Shanghai, just to get back to the countryside to smell the cow dung’), Wang’s life has been relatively unaffected compared to some. ‘Before we moved to Guizhou, [my father] was a teacher at Shanghai Theatre Academy majoring in directing,’ he says. ‘His life was completely turned around. His expertise and talent as an artist looked like a joke and were useless in the countryside.

‘Many families from Shanghai stayed [in Guizhou] for the rest of their lives because state-run factories were still the only option,’ Wang continues. ‘The fact that I make the fugitive plan to burn down the factory [where Wang Han’s father works] may imply my attitude to the period, but that’s for the critics to decide.’

For now, Wang says he’s finished making films about the Third Front. ‘In a way, 11 Flowers is the end of an era for me,’ he says, ‘I’m done covering my memories.’

Nicola Davison and Wang Ge

 

Link to Time Out Shanghai