Making a film with one child actor can be challenging; imagine making a film set in a boarding kindergarten in post-revolutionary China, with a cast full of four-and-five year olds. That's the task director Zhang Yuan took on in bringing to life his film Little Red Flowers, which is showing in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance. The film opens with not-quite-four-year-old Quiang being dragged, literally, to a boarding kindergarten, where he is unceremoniously deposited by the man who is delivering him there. Quiang has a hard time adjusting to the strict and regimented routine of the kindergarten. The head teacher, Miss Li, and her assistants, give little red crepe paper flowers to the children who do especially well at conforming to the school's routine by learning to dress and undress themselves, obey their teachers, and poop every morning on demand.
At the heart of the film is the young actor who plays Quiang, who is so adorable and expressive the audience falls in love with him from his first moments on screen. The film has funny moments, but also heartbreaking ones as Quiang struggles (and repeatedy fails) to fit in and earn the coveted flowers. Quiang is a non-conformist in a world where conformity is highly prized, and the militaristic oppression of the kindergarten seems to crush his tiny soul. Everything in the children's lives is strictly regulated, from the precise way in which they must raise a hand to ask for more soup or rice, to the way they are expected to use the bathroom en masse, squatting in a line over a gutter-toilet, to the way their bottoms are washed, one-by-one, every night before bed. When Quiang tries to express his personality, he is called a "freak" by the other children, most of whom refuse to even play with him.
Zhang addresses a topic that is fairly political in China - the idea of questioning the group mentality, the need to conform and make yourself as much like everyone else as possible, and whether individuality is a thing to be prized and nurtured, or beaten into submission with the time-honored techniques of peer pressure, humiliation and isolation. The performances Zhang is able to elicit from all his young actors are quite remarkable, especially given their tender years. Zhang captures the children playing, laughing and bullying each other, but he also captures moments of intellect and thoughtfulness. One of the things that makes this such an enjoyable film is that Zhang never condescends to his young subjects. The life of the young children in this institutional setting is about as far from films like Kindergarten Cop one could hope to find; there are no children preening for the camera and trying to out "cute" each other, just the natural things children do to and with each other in group settings. During the post-show Q&A, Zhang was asked whether the chidrens' performances were scripted or natural. He answered that while part of them were scripted, many of the scenes were the children just doing what they do naturally, because "what they come up with on their own is so much better than what filmmakers come up with for them."
Zhang is handling a heady subject in this film - the issue of conformity versus individuality is very much a political one in China - but he manages to convey his message through the children rather than around them, without resorting to the in-your-face politics that many films addressing political issues fall prey to. The issue of conformity in Chinese culture is shown rather than told, through the actions of the teachers in trying to mold rebellious Quiang into a model kindergarten student, and in the actions of his fellow students as they respond to Miss Li's chastisement and Quiang's unwillingness to follow the rules by rejecting him socially. At one point, a frustrated Quiang calls his teacher an obscene name. When the principal talks to him about it, she tells him, without a trace of irony, that he should enjoy his time in kindergarten because it is the happiest, most carefree time in his life -- then she tells the teacher to lock the child in an isolation room, where he is left to cry, terrified, for hours. Quiang's spirit is never broken, though, and Zhang shows us that even the smallest among us can have the tenacity and courage to fight for the freedom to be ourselves.
The film is based on the book by the same name, and Zhang noted in the Q&A that his film only covers the first third of the book. Asked whether he would consider doing a follow-up film to show what happens to Quiang after his film ends, Zhang smiled and said, "If the audiences like the story then yes, I will probably like to tell more about him," to which the audience responded with heartfelt applause. Little Red Flowers and its young lead captivated the crowd, and captured our hearts, and the audience, like Zhang, "really loved that little boy".
Note: We will have an in-depth interview with Zhang, who is one of the most respected names in Chinese cinema, later in the festival.