Director Wang Xiaoshuai's 11 Flowers takes place in Southwest China circa 1975 -- one year prior to the deaths of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, and the collapse of the oppressive "Cultural Revolution." The main character, Wang Han (Liu Wenquing), is an 11-year-old boy coming of age in rural Southwest China, and teetering on the edge of adolescence. He and his younger sister belong to a "sent-down" family, having been federally relocated from an urban area to a shoddy riverside town along with their parents. The father (Wang Jinchun) is an actor forced to labor in a factory while the mother (Yan Ni) tends house. Given the political tyranny that strains their lives, the parents and children stick together and support one another on an extremely close level -- to such a degree that when Wang Han needs a new dress shirt to lead gymnastic exercises at school, his mother sacrifices fabric-rationing coupons and spends a portion of what little money they have to make sure that he gets one. Meanwhile, tumult erupts in the village: One of Wang's female classmates, teenager Jue Hong (Mo Shiyi) was recently raped by a local man, whom her brother (Wang Ziyi) then killed. The brother then set fire to the local factory and fled from authorities on foot. In a haunting, surreal sequence, Wang nearly drowns in a local riverbed and regains consciousness, only to cross paths with the brother. The fugitive steals the boy's new shirt, uses it to bandage a critical wound, and promises him a new garment -- yet also tells the child that if news of this encounter spreads to anyone else, he will find the family's home and exact revenge.
At its core, this may sound like overly familiar material, inspired by iconic sources; we've seen similar coming-of-age sagas done a thousand times before, in movies ranging from The 400 Blows to The Year My Voice Broke. As such, one might despair at the thought of viewing yet another adolescent drama along these lines. Yet the picture never feels derivative -- in fact, it strikes one as unique and original on several levels.
Xiaoshuai's narrative technique is particularly strong. He tells his story with remarkable grace and delicacy -- each scene laced with matter-of-fact observations and a careful avoidance of melodrama and sensationalism; even the sequence between Wang and the brother feels understated. Xiaoshuai also made a wise decision by setting the drama in the prepubescent years. He zeroes in on a point perched midway between the sheltered optimism of childhood -- Millay's "kingdom where nobody dies" -- and the often jaded cynicism of adulthood. Xiaoshuai filters everything through Wang Han's veiled eyes, and that's the movie's greatest asset: The director gives us an opaque view of Wang's surroundings, mirroring his perception of everything, with its numerous limitations intact -- a perspective torn between a boy's continued naivete and a man's irrevocably lost innocence. It's a world full of confusion and contradictions. The ambiguities are especially effective in the scenes concerning the fugitive brother, his sister, and their dad: While Wang is struggling to figure out how to respond, emotionally and practically, to the bizarre and complicated circumstances, so are we. Throughout, one senses that the drama is pulling the boy toward a singular moment of disillusionment when he permanently abandons youthful indiscretion and folly, and the blocking of the film's final shot -- as telling and evocative as any in memory -- brings this home.
The movie also gains a great deal of traction and originality from its time and place. From outset to denouement, there is a perfect suspension of disbelief; Xiaoshuai's re-creation of Guizhou Province in the mid-1970s is so authentic that we never once question the realism of the milieu. This is not a negligible asset; the setting needs that level of persuasiveness, for it is thematically critical to the picture. At some point in mid-film, we realize that this isn't merely the saga of a young boy about to undergo the scary transition to the "foreign country" of adulthood -- it's also the story of a nation transitioning to a new and unknown post-Zedong era. In other words, Xiaoshuai manages to slyly impart a layer of sociopolitical allegory to the drama. That too makes the film particularly special and profound.
If 11 Flowers has a flaw, it lies only in the nature of the brother's crimes. Although we never see the rape or homicide on camera, those actions cloud the picture's political undertones to a needless degree; such events could happen anywhere, of course, and are hardly unique to Cultural Revolution Era China; they feel too universal for this story. Xiaoshuai would likely have delivered an even greater dramatic impact by limiting the brother's felonious crimes to actions that are specifically anti-Mao (such as his attempted immolation of the town factory), which would have enabled the director to deepen his commentary about the era that takes center stage.
All told, however, this is a beautifully crafted and observed drama on numerous levels, and it retains enough depth and insight -- toward both history and growing up -- that it will only benefit from repeat viewings and assessments.
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