Over the frequent objections of China's censors, director Wang Xiaoshuai has made 10 provocative features in 20 years. His latest, the earthy yet subtly evocative 11 Flowers, is in the same mode as the one that's best known in the U.S., 2001's Beijing Bicycle. Both are simple, resonant tales of youths who have something taken from them.
In Beijing Bicycle, a poor teenager's search for his purloined bike echoes the archetypal Italian neorealist film, 1948's Bicycle Thieves. In 11 Flowers, the lost object is even more humble: a white shirt.
But that garment means a lot to earnest 11-year-old Wang Han (wide-eyed Liu Wenqing), who begs his mother (Yan Ni) for it. Identified as his school's best gymnast, Han is asked to lead daily calisthenics. His teacher suggests that the honor deserves a new white shirt. To Han, who usually wears a nonregulation blue one, said shirt becomes an obsession.
It's 1975, during what will turn out to be the last year of the Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong's manufactured upheaval has banished Han's family to a small factory town in the southwestern mountains; the boy knows no other life, and can't understand the frustration of adults exiled from major cities. He doesn't really fathom why his doting opera-performer father (Wang Jingchun) is encouraging him to become a painter, an artistic profession that can be pursued in seclusion.
With fabric rationing in effect, a white shirt for the boy will deprive his parents and younger sister of new clothes. When his mother reluctantly provides the shirt, it's the biggest news in town for young Han.
His neighbors, however, are focused on other events: a rape, followed by a revenge murder. Somehow involved is Juehong (Mo Shiyi), a pretty teenage girl who attends the same school as Han and his three mischievous buddies. They observe her closely, sure that something is happening.
11 Flowers was inspired by an incident from Wang's youth. (Its title translates literally as Me, 11.) It is in part a portrayal of the deprivations, both material and spiritual, of the Cultural Revolution. But it just as expressively depicts the universal condition of childhood, a period of intense curiosity and profound cluelessness. Like most kids, Han can feel left out, even within his own family.
The director represents this keenly using point-of-view camera; we see through Han's eyes as he circles a table of gossipy grown-ups, peeking past arms and elbows. The director also simulates the kid's perspective through windows and steam, when hanging his head upside down and during the wooziness of a fever.
Sometimes, Wang employs the viewpoint of another character: Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), a wounded fugitive who's hiding in the woods. He steals Han's shirt and uses it to stanch the bleeding from his side. The gesture has both practical and symbolic implications. How can the boy tell his mother he lost the new shirt? And how can innocence be restored to a bloodied China?
The movie doesn't dwell on the latter question, although the murder is followed by outbursts of teen-gang violence and Red Guard attacks on "conservatives." Like the whole country, Han's hometown is officiously governed yet prone to anarchy.
Maoism's oppressiveness is conveyed by the patriotic anthems that blare from loudspeakers — and are sung by people, including Han's parents, who prefer traditional tunes but fear being overheard singing them. The bombastic music disappears when the boys visit the woods along the river, where only rustlings and burblings can be heard. For children here, as elsewhere, nature offers both its own charms and a refuge from adult perplexities. (Recommended)