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Little Red Flowers
Zhang Yuan 张元
Little Red Flowers

In the spirit of his directorial debut, Mama (1991), Zhang Yuan’s 2006 feature film Little Red Flowers returns to the theme of the plight of marginalised or behaviourally challenging children and their parents, in his second adaptation for cinema of a popular novel by Wang Shuo, Could Be Beautiful. The quasi-autobiographical story of four-year-old Qiangqiang's refusal to conform to the demands made on him by his school reception class reflects Zhang Yuan's ongoing concern for individuals of all ages who cannot or will not conform and find themselves in trouble with Chinese socialist conventions. In this respect, similar narratives can be found in Beijing Bastards (1993) and in Sons (1995), a documentary about a dysfunctional family with a father confined to a psychiatric institution and his increasingly alcoholic and disorderly sons. In Little Red Flowers, these tensions between the individual and the community are sensitively portrayed and discreetly satirised by highlighting the simultaneous need for children to form good and timely personal habits, and the difficulties they encounter in negotiating some kind of space in which to express themselves personally.

Dr. Vivienne Lo (University College London)


Zhang Yuan (b. Nanjing, 1963) is a leading member of the ‘Sixth' or 'Urban Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers who came to prominence in the early 1990s in a climate of increasing economic liberalisation and rapid urbanisation, but tighter political control. Often part-funded from abroad, sixth generation filmmakers have generally rejected their predecessors’ nostalgic preoccupation with China's rural past and with the roots of Chinese culture to focus on (often young) people’s perspectives on their own experiences in contemporary urban environments. Though not strictly a documentary, Zhang Yuan’s first film, Mama (1990), about a Beijing mother’s struggle to raise her autistic son, is regarded as one of the first major works of the ‘new documentary film movement’ in China. These films are typically shot independently of the state film system on a low budget, and have a raw, documentary ‘look’ even when they are not actually films of fact but rather 'docu-dramas'. Zhang’s next film, Beijing Bastards (Beijing Zazhong, 1993), was another quasi-documentary about the hard-drinking, sex-and-drugs-fuelled lives of young rock musicians and their friends. Zhang’s concern with those who live on the margins of ‘normal’ society is apparent in his subsequent film Sons (Erzi, 1996), about the shared alcoholism and mental illness of a delinquent father and his sons, and in East Palace West Palace’s depiction of the stigmatised lives of gay men. Zhang’s early films often involve non-professional actors playing themselves. Since East Palace West Palace, Zhang has continued to produce feature films and documentaries covering a variety of topics, which are generally considered to be more ‘mainstream’ than his earlier work.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)


Some time in the 1970s, Qiangqiang, a 4-year-old boy, has been abandoned to a Beijing residential nursery by a faceless father and a mother working out of town. Bed-wetting and unable to dress himself, he has a hard time conforming to the daily rhythms and regulations of the institution’s conditions. His domestic and hygienic behavior is found wanting by all around him who are committed to the school’s strict regimen and efficient operation. The ‘little red flowers’ of the title refer to the much-coveted rewards given to students who successfully submit themselves to the school's disciplinary regime. Qiangqiang’s seemingly obstinate misbehaviour means that he soon alienates his more conformist playmates and attracts the anger and censure of the long suffering headmistress, Mrs Li. Qiang’s own suffering and alienation emerge in instinctual, rather than intentional, forms of defiance, including fighting in the playground, stealing ‘little red flowers’, and insisting on controlling the timing of his own bowel movements.

Dr. Vivienne Lo (University College London)


Told seamlessly through the interactions of the children themselves, and the children with their teachers and guardians, the film is nevertheless a serious reflection on the struggle for independent action and creativity in 1980s China during an era of profound social change. Fairly conventional in its filming techniques, the establishing aerial shot draws us in to a dilapidated Qing courtyard, where the parentless children are themselves the little red flowers playing in the ruins of former imperial splendor – the collective apparently triumphing over elite privilege. The camera moves at a very slow pace in the nursery to give a sense of the repressed atmosphere deliberately inculcated by the staff to maintain group harmony, speeds up a little when the children plan various unpredictable acts of rebellion, and then a great deal more in moments of intense action such as the inevitable bullying, or to create a sense of confusion amidst the pandemonium and cacophony of children running aimlessly around. Fast circling shots are used to set Qiangqiang apart from the conformist majority and its group acts of suppression, ridicule and humiliation – increasing the child's sense of isolation and confusion. Distant shots where the camera seems to be spying on the child, or is focused on the teacher from behind windows and fences, intensify the sense of distance between the protagonists, and create feelings of suspicion and tension. However, there are also moments of tenderness, of connection with the other children, even with the teachers, who are not all unfeeling, nor uniformly strict. There is no explicit corporal punishment, and with what must be a ratio of just three carers to forty children we might feel some sympathy for the adults! This is not one of the horrendous orphanages that were the butt of international media attention a decade or two ago.

Where space is at a premium – the children are barracked up in their cradles nose to nose, head to toe – what room is there for independent action? As a microcosm of the state, bottom wiping in the nursery is a military exercise performed to the whistle, an homology given explicit visual form as the children march in crocodile fashion past the soldiers on drill. But Qiangqiang runs in the opposite direction, always seeking out places and spaces to move in his own way, and urinate in his own good time. The natural environment acts as a foil for the nursery, endorsing Qiangqiang's quest for freedom: he walks alone in the snow, the wind blows his hair as he gallops on the makeshift merry-go-round horse, and at night he escapes from the nursery into the rain.

Whereas Sons used real life members of a dysfunctional family, in Zhang’s now familiar documentary style, in Little Red Flowers, an adaptation of a work of fiction done in the manner of a semi-improvised docu-drama, he draws impressively naturalistic performances from child actors no doubt faithfully capturing their own games, conflicts, and moments of introspection, rather than totally manufacturing the narrative. In fact, there is very little narrative development, except that the final shot finds Qiangqiang intentionally isolating himself in the nearby temple gardens. We leave him curled up alone in a palatial, but barren, stone room, and wonder what the future will bring for a child without friends, confused and at odds with the world. Zhang’s film capitalises on the charm of well-trained child actors, has a lush sound track, and makes the most of its audience's nostalgia for a cultural revolution setting in an outpost of the Forbidden City. Little Red Flowers thus fits the pattern of a 'main melody' film, yet somehow manages not to betray its deeper messages about how individuals negotiate the state's demands for conformity, then as now.

Dr. Vivienne Lo (University College London)

  • The condition of abandoned children in China
  • The individual potential for self-expression in a socialist state
  • The state's reach into individual and collective lives through public health and hygiene
  • Ways of asserting independence
  • Gender and childhood
  • The role of documentary and drama-documentary film in the depiction of Chinese social reality
  • Perceptions of childhood in China
  • Inclusion or exclusion
  • The state's relationship with and responsibilities for children
  • The place of Zhang Yuan’s film in the changing profile of Chinese documentaries and docu-dramas
  • How does the film depict desperation?