by Ken Korman
The original Mandarin title of 11 Flowers translates literally to something along the lines of I am 11. That would have been a more fitting name for this autobiographical and unsentimental coming-of-age story from veteran Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle). The film does a remarkable job of getting across what it’s like to be a still-innocent pre-teen boy.
Set in 1975, 11 Flowers is based on the director’s own experiences growing up in rural province of Guizhou near the end of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution — a time when urban families in places like Shanghai were asked to move inland along with factories to help defend the industrial base against potential attack from the U.S.S.R. Though many of the adults pine for cultural and material riches of the city they lost, the children are a product of the new environment and possess little understanding of the social upheaval that surrounds them.
The story involves a new shirt for an 11-year-old boy — a rare and valuable commodity during Mao’s reign — a chance encounter with a fugitive, and the growing political unrest in the streets of a rural village. But plot details are far from central, as 11 Flowers is more interested in evoking a particular time and place from a child’s unencumbered perspective. Surprisingly natural performances from an ensemble of young actors keep that goal well within reach.
11 Flowers screens nightly at 7:30 p.m. through March 7 at Zeitgeist Movies. More info here.