BERLIN – Germany’s prestigious Berlinale film festival saw on Thursday its final line-up of in-competition contenders vying for the coveted Golden Bear award with a Chinese family drama exploring the trauma of the Cultural Revolution that profoundly changed society in the Asian giant over a decade filled with upheaval and violence.
Director Wang Xiaoshuai introduced audiences to his newest film, “Di Jiu Tian Chang” (“So Long, My Son”), which focuses on the pressures exerted by the Cultural Revolution – a frenzied mass movement launched in 1966 by China’s then-leader Mao Zedong to purge “revisionist” (rival) elements from all aspects of society and strengthen his grip on power – and its aftermath on a single family and its close-knit circle of friends over 30 years.
“The Cultural Revolution’s slogan was that we needed to look forward in favor of our country’s progress,” Wang said. “But that’s not possible without coming to terms with the past.”
The infamous single-child policy and the abortion one of the main characters is forced to undergo after her second pregnancy lie at the heart of the drama expertly depicted by the celebrated auteur filmmaker, who won the Jury Prize at the 2005 Cannes festival for his acclaimed movie “Shanghai Dreams.”
During the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” family planning – like many other activities, such as restrictions on dancing – was enforced in strict martial terms.
“Forgiving and being forgiven can be a long path. Just like my movie,” Wang joked, in reference to the film’s 180-minute run time that makes it the lengthiest of the 16 movies in the official section which will compete for the awards that are set to be doled out by the Juliette Binoche-presided jury on Saturday.
The festival originally had scheduled Wang’s film to be the next-to-last to be featured as part of the main competition, with his compatriot, Zhang Yimou, expected to present his work “Yi Miao Zhong” (“One Second”) for its world premiere on Friday.
That film, however, was yanked at the last minute from the contest, ostensibly due to “technical reasons encountered during post-production.”
Such an explanation is common in China as a euphemism for government censorship.
Zhang, who won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear in 1988 for his classic “Red Sorghum,” had also made the Cultural Revolution – which the 68-year-old lived through as a young man – a centerpiece of his film.
Death toll estimates for the Cultural Revolution differ greatly depending on the source – some claim it reached up to several million deaths – but the consensus of most historians is that at least 400,000 people were killed in the bloody factional struggles and persecutions of perceived dissidents that erupted across the country.
In any case, the decade of turbulence and coerced orthodoxy left a profound impact on Chinese society, which after Mao’s death in 1976 underwent a comprehensive rearrangement with the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping, who spearheaded sweeping market reforms that heralded the single-party industrial state capitalism boasted by the current regime.