The film “Growing Apart,” also known as “Vanished Girl,” made its debut at the FIRST International Film Festival in 2022. It was awarded the Best Performance Award and the Audience Award for Best Film. It also received a Jury Special Mention at the Beijing International Film Festival in 2023 and was nominated for several other awards. Director and co-writer Long Lingyun drew inspiration from the real-life experience of a friend who was greatly affected by the controversial Chinese one-child policy.
In the beginning of the film, a scene reminiscent of the iconic sequence in Chungking Express featuring Brigitte Lin takes place. A mysterious young woman, disguised in a glamorous wig, lipstick, and sunglasses, hastily navigates through an indoor market to meet a dubious individual and obtain a counterfeit identification. We are soon introduced to the true identity of the woman – He Sheng (played by Shang Yuxian), a college student who resides with her strict and overprotective mother, He Xiuqin (played by Liya Ai). The fake ID is part of He Sheng’s plan to gain some independence from her mother’s controlling grip on her life. In a parallel storyline, we meet Cheng Fei (played by Xiaoke Yue), a young man who was raised by his paternal grandmother and father, Cheng Jianguo (played by Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang). Cheng Fei’s mother passed away when he was a baby, supposedly in a car accident, but discussing her death is a sensitive topic for his family. Cheng Fei’s passion for skateboarding causes conflict with his father, who had high expectations for his son’s future success.
In 2005, Cheng Fei and He Sheng become acquaintances through an online chat room. Cheng Fei, known as Swallowtail Butterfly, and He Sheng meet in person and confide in each other about their personal struggles. However, they lose touch over time. Two years later, Cheng Fei discovers a missing person flyer with He Sheng’s photo in his father’s room. Curious about his father’s possession of the flyer, Cheng Fei begins to investigate and ends up living with He Sheng’s mother as a tenant. As the pieces start to come together, a shocking and dramatic portrait of two families emerges, filled with secrets, lies, and remorse.
In 1979, the Chinese government implemented a one-child policy as a means of controlling the country’s rapidly growing population and alleviating social and economic pressures. Due to existing gender inequality, the policy reinforced the belief that a family’s only heir should be male, resulting in ethically troubling consequences. However, in 2015, the Chinese government officially ended the one-child policy and now allows couples to have two children. This controversial policy left lasting practical and psychological impacts, particularly on women’s roles in Chinese society.
In his film, Long Lingyun explores the impact of the Chinese one-child policy on ordinary people with sensitivity and compassion. He gives a voice to those who may have been affected by it. While there is a brief mention of the policy’s background, the focus is on a humanistic perspective rather than delving into the law itself. The story is presented in a way that avoids creating monsters or villains, as each character has their own struggles and challenges to face. We may be tempted to assign blame to Cheng Fei’s father for his actions or He Sheng’s mother for dismissing her daughters’ dreams, but they too are victims of this cruel mandate.
The movie focuses on the negative consequences that a nonsensical policy can have on those involved. It also highlights the fact that women have been and continue to be the most affected by strict family planning measures, often carrying the emotional burden. As a result, women were devalued and baby girls were often abandoned or even killed. “Growing Apart” shares multiple stories of intense emotional distress and underlying feelings of guilt, all culminating in one dramatic narrative. Director Long chooses to reveal the truth slowly, which may be confusing in the first third of the film as it jumps between 2005 and 2007. However, this approach proves to be impactful in delivering a powerful punch, and the final revelation is bold and impactful.
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Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang and Liya Ai brilliantly portray the roles of Cheng Fei’s father and He Sheng’s mother, showcasing their extensive and impressive acting experience. However, the two young actors, Shang Yuxian and Xiaoke Yue, deserve special recognition for their convincing and engaging portrayal of lost souls. The cinematography is also noteworthy for its high quality, effectively capturing the intense emotions of the characters.
“Drifting Apart” is a powerful and persuasive analysis of a memorable mistake in history, and a sympathetic examination of the individuals left to rebuild.