11 Flowers: Harsh Truths
As unromanticized a portrait of Chinese sociopolitical history as any made by the Sixth Generation, Beijing Bicycle director Wang Xiaoshuai's semiautobiographical coming-of-age drama—set in 1975, just before the death of Mao and his pitiless Cultural Revolution—is still more sensitive than disaffected, too gentle to resonate more than mildly. In a bleak rural province of southwestern China, the childhood innocence of 11-year-old Wang Han (a soulful, lively Liu Wenqing) is disappearing quickly, even if his actor father and strict mother aren't letting their poverty and forced factory jobs sour their dispositions. Too young to understand the oppression around him, Wang Han is free to get into mischief with his schoolmates, his biggest care in life the white dress shirt his mom saved a year's worth of coupons to buy him; that single-minded fixation will eventually bring him, Dickens-style, into the path of a murderous fugitive. Because the film is mostly seen from the child's POV (which carries its own formal beauty when he's underwater, upside down, or blurry from fever), the harsher truths of his confusing milieu—as well as the killer's why-dun-it thread—are only revealed simplistically, piecemeal, and out-of-context through the whispered conversations of nearby adults.
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