11 Flowers is set in 1975, the year before the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is a time when artistic freedom is suppressed, where political revolutionaries are sniffed out and executed, where rebellions are quashed mercilessly and gossip can have tragic consequences. It is in this world that we find Wang Han and his three friends (played by four exceptional child actors), all attending the same school, all from families experiencing the same financial difficulties, and all immature and naïve. When Wang Han’s teacher asks for his mother to buy him a new shirt, it costs her a year’s worth of fabric coupons and a sleepless night to produce the item of clothing. That shirt changes Wang Han’s life in ways he couldn’t dream of…
The children’s only knowledge of a world beyond their play and daily routine is revealed through whispers at family gatherings, where patriotic songs and mindless chit-chat conceals burning resentment and impotent feelings of indignation and rebellion, or through accidental glimpses of things they perhaps are too young to see. Their parents and neighbours are ordinary people; many are not interested in politics – they simply want to be able to live their lives in peace.
A murder in their small province catalyses Wang Han’s fall from innocence; its repercussions will never leave him. As the circumstances that led to the killing begin to unravel, he develops a greater awareness of the suffering of those around him, which may eventually alienate him from the people he has grown up with and loved for so long. The film’s haunting final scene is full of sadness, but tinged with the bittersweet taste of hope and future change.
I have felt a great admiration for Chinese cinema for a very long time. The Fifth Generation filmmakers in particular (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian ZhuangZhuang etc.) have captured my imagination time and time again; the visuals in their movies are arguably the most breath taking to be found in modern cinema. Wang Xiao-Shuai, a member of the Sixth Generation, and whose films I was not previously acquainted with, has certainly made an impression on me here with this poignant coming-of-age tale. If you can imagine a more subtle, slower-paced Stand By Me set in 70s China under Mao’s dictatorship, this might be the result.
Despite the fact that it might not tread any new ground, 11 Flowers is nevertheless a very moving exploration of one boy’s childhood, and an impressive movie in its own right. It is an accomplished, beautifully filmed and deeply felt piece of work, which I imagine holds great personal value for its director. How much the events here correspond to those of his own childhood, I am unsure; but the maturity and emotional drive of this film (without ever straying into the realms of the twee or sentimental) makes it something quite special. I sincerely hope it receives a widespread UK release later this year so that even more people can enjoy what it has to offer.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (March ’12)