11 Flowers is about coming of age in Maoist China in 1975. First, we set the stage. Mao Zedong's cultural revolution is in full swing. After a failed economic plan of the 1950s and '60s, Mao, who is desperate to hold on to power, does a Communist Party purge and goes after intellectuals and pro-capitalists. They are blamed for his program's failure.
Mao tasks the nation's youth to carry out his plan. They are known as the Red Guard, and they fanned out into the country. Some persecuted aren't really capitalists or intellectuals.
This is an over-simplification, but it gives you a setting point for writer/director Xiaoshuai Wang's (Beijing Bicycle, Shanghai Dreams) somewhat autobiographic film.
Wang Han is 11 years old. He lives in a small village in China's interior. He and his three best friends are regular kids almost interchangeable from children who ran and played in the streets of this nation in the 1960s. Wang Han is singled out by his teacher to lead his school's daily exercise program. To do so, he needs a new shirt. His mom sacrifices the family's one-year allotment of material to make one.
While playing with his friends at the river, Wang Han's shirt is grabbed by a young man who murdered the man who raped his sister. He has been shot and needs the shirt's material to stop the bleeding. The young man threatens to kill the boy and his family if he tells anyone.
So Wang Han has to explain to his mom that he lost the shirt at the river.
With the loss of a shirt, writer/director Wang sets up a complex series of events wrapped in a brilliantly written coming-of-age movie. The kids know about adult things. They try to process the cultural revolution, the rape of a young girl who Wang Han has a crush on, murder and the harsh punishment for real and imagined crimes, and try to fit them into their limited understanding of what's really happening in the world. They know much of it is bad -- and even dangerous -- but relating to anything that isn't play is difficult.
The pace of Wang's movie is slow. It's deliberate. A big chunk of the first part of the movie is just regular kid stuff. It helps set the tone for the drama to come and the fate of the young Wang Han. And it's brilliant.
Released in 2011, 11 Flowers got very little notice in this country. Too bad. Because the new movie opening this week is the no-doubt dreadful Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, go to the Battelle Auditorium and see this one.
Director: Xiaoshuai Wang
Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars
Not rated but probably PG-13 for mature themes. It plays at 8 p.m. Jan. 3 at the Battelle Auditorium in Richland.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.