This movie was banned by China when it came out for the realistic way it portrayed China between the death of Stalin in 1953 till the start of the Cultural Revolution. The film is composed of three parts: Father, Uncle, and Stepfather.
Father begins with a wedding that had been postponed due to the death of Stalin. This marriage is for love and results in the birth of Tietou. It doesn’t take long before Tietou’s father is sent away when the revolution shifts gears. He dies when a tree ends up falling on him. Things aren’t too bad during this time, but you can sense that everyone is on pins and needles.
Uncle begins with another wedding, but this time Tietou’s mother is marrying for friendship. By this time things have started to get nasty as the Great Leap Forward starts, but the film never breaks into large scale scenes. Instead, the film stays on a very small scale as we see the effects of the revolution on Tietou’s family. Uncle dies due to poor health because of malnutrition.
Stepfather begins with the last wedding for safety and the promise of a better life. Tietou and his mother move from their small courtyard home to an upscale place. The stepfather isn’t a loving man, but isn’t a bad guy either. Eventually the revolution switches gears into the Cultural Revolution and the stepfather is taken away. This time the mother is also taken and the son beaten.
It’s not surprising that this film was banned. It shows how when Mao couldn’t make one revolutionary policy work he grabbed another generation, blamed the previous one, and sicked the new generation on the old one. Thus Mao is changed his relation to the people just like the father in each part of the film. Each one getting further and further from the good intentions of the original revolutionaries. Further and further until he ends up with heartless teenagers and children dragging away their parents and teachers as traitors.
All that said, it’s quite slow and boring at times. That’s why it’s only worth a look.