Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wang Xiaoshuai's 11 FLOWERS offers a narrative of China in a time of change....

...and, for a change, that time is not present-day. Instead, with 11 FLOWERS -- the new film from Wang Xiaoshuai who has earlier given us both Bejing Bicycle and In Love We Trust -- we're whisked back to 1975 (just one year, the title cards tell us, before the end of the Cultural Revolution) to a small town in southwest China. Those of us old enough will recall this awful time of the Red Guards and the Chairman Mao personality cult, when it seemed to us westerners that China was under the influence of a bunch of brainwashed nuts.

Perhaps because it takes place so near the end of this trying time and is seen mostly from the viewpoint of its eleven-year-old, sort-of hero (and his schoolmates), the film (directed and co-written by Wang, shown at right) appears to be much quieter and more benign than we might imagine. Just beneath that placid surface, however, is roiling all kinds of trauma. 11 Flowers does a bang-up job of bringing us that undercurrent in a way that an eleven-year-old would experience it: off-center, via snippets of conversation by adults who want to keep anything untoward from the eyes and minds of the children.

On the cusp of adolescence -- toward the end of the film, our hero has his first wet dream, the remains of which are found by his parents, which occasions one of the film's most charming scenes -- Han, who looks to become a gifted gymnast, is put in charge of his school's training (above), which means the need of a new shirt. This proves a brilliant move, for the shirt (hanging out to dry, on the riverbank below) then acts as a conduit to reveal everything from character (particularly that of Han's mother) to the film's major event, and onwards, snaking its way around both symbol and something very real and moving.

The filmmaker makes us keenly aware of how children perceive things -- from hearing those conversational snippets, to suddenly seeing adults running through the streets or events taking place at a distance, from which they can parse only a bit of what is happening. Mr Wang is also is also terrific at showing us how children, as smart as they may be for their age, simply cannot be expected to act like adults until they are that. Till then, they are at the mercy of their elders. At times, you'll so want young Han to rise to the occasions presented him. It is greatly to the credit of the filmmaker that the boy cannot.

Mr. Wang sees children as neither heroic nor cowardly but simply as kids negotiating that windy path to adulthood. The road here involves parents, friends, politics, employment, sexuality, even murder and retribution -- all observed and understood believably by eleven-year-olds, with us adult viewers able to fill in the blanks, thanks to the filmmaker's double-duty skills. This is one of the best -- because it's unsentimental -- films about childhood, and about China and its history, that I have seen in some time. Well cast and beautifully acted, it's yet another feather in the cap of this lesser-known but quite humane and talented filmmaker. Let's hope it does not get lost in the ever-greater shuffle of small movie gems that appear, and then quickly disappear.

11Flowers, a Chinese-French co-production with English subtitles and one of those rare narrative films we sometimes get from First Run Features, runs just under two hours and opens in New York City tomorrow -- Friday, February 22 -- at the Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center and the Quad Cinema. Over the next month or so it will open in a few more cities across the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. As this one is from FRF, you'll be able to see it eventually on DVD (and maybe VOD and streaming), as well.

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