11 Flowers may be Wang Xiaoshuai’s most personal film to date. Taking place in 1975, a year before the Mao’s death, the film follows eleven year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) as he goes about his daily life in his rural town in southwest China. After displaying a strong work ethic, Han is appointed school gym leader and is told that he should get a new shirt as he will be the one that the students look up to. Reluctant at first, Han’s mother (Yan Ni) spends a year’s worth of cloth rations to get the material needed to make the shirt. After impressing his friends with new attire, Han is horrified when his shirt is stolen by a wounded fugitive, Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), taking shelter in the woods.
Now a story about a boy and his stolen shirt may not sound compelling, but 11 Flowers is far deeper than its premise leads you to believe. The film is really a tale of a society repressed by its government. Han’s shirt represents a loss of innocence. Whether Han is playing hide and seek with his friends or searching for his stolen shirt, he is constantly confronted with the harsh reality of the time in which he lives. Xiaoshuai shows how the Cultural Revolution impacted every single facet of life.
The era was a time of poverty and widespread violence. Even those fortunate enough to have jobs had to work in less than desirable conditions. This is encapsulated nicely through Han’s father (Wang Jingchun) , an artistic and intellectual person who is forced to leave his job with the Opera to do manual work in the rural town. His father not only gets injured while on the job, but also gets attacked by the Red Guard when he attempts to help a fellow co-worker in distress.
Throughout 11 Flowers, Xiaoshuai shows how people were often forced to take justice into their own hands. The story of Jueqiang is the film’s most fascinating subplot, as his crimes are hotly debated by many of the villagers. While outlandish rumours fly about town, Han discovers what lead Jueqiang to murder a respected factory owner. It is this encounter that really changes Han by the end of the film. While his friends all race to see Jueqiang’s public execution, Han stops and decides to head home. The scene subtly signifies the end of Han’s childish innocence.
11 Flowers is a poignant film that effectively displays the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of a child. Wang Xiaoshuai’s cast does a great job of hitting all the right emotions. His young lead, Liu Wenqing, manages to carry the bulk of the film’s workload while still maintaining Han’s overall naiveté. If there is one knock against 11 Flowers, and it is a minor one, it is that the film feels longer than its actual running time. However, when dealing with such heavy issues as the Cultural Revolution, one should not expect a swift pace. Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers offers good insight on what the director experienced as a child growing up in China. The audience sees how the events of Xiaoshuai’s past have shaped him into the director he is today.