Set in Guizhou province in 1975, 11 Flowers depicts the last days of the Cultural Revolution as seen through the eyes of an 11-year old boy. Like any other kid his age, Wang Han is primarily concerned with hanging out with his friends after school and does his best to avoid incurring his mother’s wrath for whatever mischief he gets himself into. This all changes when one day, he crosses paths with a wanted murderer and fugitive. Or so the film’s trailers would have you believe.
Instead, writer/director Wang Xiaoshuai—who also directed the superb Beijing Bicycle—spends the majority of the film focusing on Wang Han’s life and that of those who surround him. For the first third of the film, Wang Han is more concerned with convincing his mother to sew him a new shirt, as his old one is too shabby for his new role as class gymnastics leader. While that may not sound interesting, Wang manages to make it work. The result is multi-layered storytelling that is both compelling and entertaining—after all, its hard not to feel Wang Han’s pride when he puts on the shirt for the first time, or that sinking in your stomach when he has to face his mother after it’s stolen by the fugitive. At the same time, Wang subtly paints a picture of a world where getting a new shirt would be today’s equivalent of getting an iPad. It’s in these scenes that Flowers shines brightest; the acting is spot on for a movie filled with child actors (especially newcomer Liu Wenqing as Wang Han), the cinematography is beautiful and for 115 minutes, you really do get a sense of what life under Chairman Mao must have been like.
However, those expecting to see an intense drama about a boy befriending a man with ambiguous morals will be disappointed. This is not that movie, at least, not entirely. While the fugitive storyline is definitely one of the movie’s more engaging subplots, Flowers is inherently a movie more concerned with exploring the lives of people who are not always free to live the lives they want, and how the times we live in can affect how people view the world. So much so, it sometimes feels as if Flowers is two separate movies: one where Wang Han and his friends deal with growing up in one of China’s most turbulent eras and another that focuses on the impact a crime can take on a small town and the people who live in it. Things eventually come full circle, but the film admittedly takes a little too long getting there.
To put it simply, 11 Flowers is well worth checking out. Director Wang Xiaoshuai is a favorite at film festivals, having previously won awards at both the Berlin Film Festival and Cannes. He brings the full extent of that directorial experience to Flowers, making it one of the hidden gems at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.