The original title for Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers translates roughly to I Am 11. Though slightly more generic sounding than its English-language moniker, it more thoroughly encapsulates the political and social perspective of the film, which retains the point of view of its pre-adolescent protagonist so closely that the camera follows him under water, flips upside down during his handstands, and even fogs during a period of illness. If this sounds gimmicky, it’s actually deftly handled, and contributes to the film’s nuanced portrait of coming of age during China’s Cultural Revolution.
A semi-autobiographical story of the director’s childhood in rural China, the film focuses on 11-year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing), whose family has been relocated to Guizhou from Shanghai as part of Mao’s Third Front policies. When Wang Han is chosen to lead morning exercises at school, the “honor” requires his mother (Yan Ni) to provide him with a new shirt—a luxury given the time period’s rationing of materials—which she labors to make herself. But merely days later, the shirt is stolen when Wang Han encounters a young murderer on the run in the mountains near his village. This run-in with the fugitive, who reveals himself as the older brother of one of Wang Han’s schoolmates, marks the beginning of Wang Han’s transition from childhood naïveté to a firmer understanding of the world around him.
Because of its choice in subjectivity, and despite the film’s historical context, 11 Flowers firmly elevates the experience of the personal over the political. Warring between political factions and youth groups that stampede through the town is seen out of context through the eyes of the child characters, as Wang Han and his group of friends suppose that all the older boys are fighting over girls. Mother and son’s differences in perception of the “honor” placed upon Wang Han by being given a leadership position in his state-run school are never spelled out further than the personal conflict between Wang Han’s pride and his mother’s necessary frugality. The fugitive’s crime has social roots instead of political ones: He’s murdered the man who raped his sister, Jue Hong (Mo Shiyi). And when politics finally boil up in a scene where the fugitive’s father confesses to Wang Han’s father (Wang Jingchun) of the personal shame the Cultural Revolution has brought him, Wang Han’s focus vacillates between the adults’ conversation and Jue Hong, who’s changing her clothes in the next room.
Narratively, the events of the film unfold slowly and elliptically. But if it feels at points overlong, the rambling narrative—with the limited events involving the creation and theft of the shirt being the only real plot motivators—is effective at evoking Wang Han’s subtle transition from self-involved child to self-aware adolescent. The film is evocative of Stand By Me, as both reflect on a bygone era of a country’s history through the eyes of young males. But the film also recalls the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda in the way the camera sensitively moves with the children and appreciates their worldview.
11 Flowers is greatly enhanced by the mix of Dong Sinjong’s cinematography and the editing of Nelly Quettier (who, known for her work with Claire Denis and Leos Carax, adds a distinctly European sensibility to the narrative flow). The images and the rhythms created by the editing deftly balance the profundity of the mountainsides of this rural Chinese village with the interiority and isolation of the characters. But the real triumph of the film is that Wang has created an intensely personal story from a political period that subjugated the personal, and an utterly universal film that nonetheless stunningly evokes the uniqueness of its own time and place.