Coming-of-age movies: Other than any cultural specificities that are grafted onto these stories, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? Wang Xiaoshuai’s tale of a young boy’s misadventures in rural China at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution won’t dissuade anybody from thinking that that theory isn’t necessarily true, but it does prove that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. If you handle the usual elements—youthful shenanigans, an ironic big-picture history as seen through little eyes—with grace and aesthetic good taste the way this Sixth Generation filmmaker does, then it’s possible to make the material feel mildly resonant, if not revelatory.
Of course, adding a dollop of Dickens’s Great Expectations into the mix doesn’t hurt, which the director and his screenwriting collaborator, Ni Lao, do in the form of introducing a fugitive killer (Wang Ziyi) hiding out in the woods around the film’s midway point. Until then, we’ve mostly been following 11-year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) as he plays around with his school pals, listens to his painter dad (Wang Jinchun) hold forth about the importance of art and finding one’s own way, and begs his mom for a brand-new white shirt. Once the murderer starts relying on the lad’s kindness, all the preceding kid stuff starts to take on a purposefully sour tang. When the inevitable loss of innocence occurs, we aren’t surprised, nor—thanks to the filmmaker’s deft hand—do we feel like we’ve been unduly played for a sucker.
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