This 3-hour long  Chinese epic is  a staggering achievement in  every sense. After I  finished watching it I sat  in supreme  silence  thinking about life, mortality, continuity,  lineage,  marital harmony,  friendship  and at the end of it all, the  futility of it all.

How do I describe  So Long My Friend? At its most visible level it is the story of a couple, played with self-effacing velocity by Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, who lose their only son in a freak drowning accident. The narration, done up in  moving images  culled  from  the  past and tossed into the present, shows us in vivid yet unobtrusive colours of grief, how this tragedy determines  the couple’s entire journey of life.

“Now we are just waiting for  old age,” the  father of the drowned son tells his best friend and  his friend’s wife who  hold themselves guilty for the tragedy as  their own son Shen Hao was with the doomed boy on the fateful day that changed the narrative  of  two couple’s lives.

So Long, My Son is  so  much like  life. It is as  complicated  or simple as  you make it. You can watch the film and its gracefully unfolding cinematic saga of pain, tragedy, heartbreak and  reconciliation. Or you can dig deeper into the troughs  of Chinese history of  the past 50-60 years when  single-child families were made mandatory by  the Chinese government.

What happens during such a dictatorial regime when a couple loses their child and cannot try for another? The grief  of  the  protagonists  is like silent whiplashes  in the film. I felt their pain for the entire three hours of the film, as two of the most non-actorial  actors I’ve ever seen in any language played out the distressing destiny of a couple who lose their entire life in one accident.

Director Wang Xiaoshuai never makes it easy for us to suffer with the grieving couple. As time passes, their bereavement too evolves into a powerful beast that takes many forms, from a failed adoption attempt to an extra-marital  affair. In fact  the only time I was not invested  into the  story was when the grieving father  has an affair which ends in an unwanted pregnancy for  the woman who offers, with piquant generosity, to  give the child to the grieving childless couple.

Luckily for the narrative, Yong Mei doesn’t play the kind of wife who would accept such a weird offer from her husband’s paramour. It’s amazing how little the actress playing the grieving mother speaks . In three hours Yong Mei utters maybe ten small sentences. The Chinese  know how to  respect silences. When would we  ever learn?

There are episodes of almost unbearable poignancy in the narrative where, I am not ashamed to day, I sobbed  openly. Most heart-breaking is the grief of  the mother of the  boy who survives in the drowning tragedy. Three decades  after the  tragedy, her surviving son now  a doctor, on her deathbed she tells the mother of the  dead son, “I’ve got the money for you to hide your second child from the authorities.”

Reminding the couple in her dementia  of  the unborn  child that they aborted because their government  wouldn’t allow them to have a second child . But my question is, would another offspring’s presence  have helped Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun to cope better  with the death  of their son? Does  the tragedy  of bereavement  diminish in  the  presence  of another  child?

There are so many unanswered questions in So Long, My Son. A  film  so steeped  in  the  colours of  meditative melancholy that no words of praise seem adequate. Perhaps a two-minute silence in honour of this unconditional masterpiece  is the best review for a film about the wages of  death and the finality of  loss.

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