Michelle Chen Miao’s moving drama Son of the Stars begins with its protagonist in transit, a state that she will perpetually find herself in, despite the fleeting promise of stability. Traveling by train from Northern China to the city of Dongguan, which has developed industrially during the economic boom, Zheng Zheng (Jing Liang) is clearly struggling to take care of her autistic son Xin Xin (Jiandi Zhu). While his mother is talking on her mobile phone, Xin Xin pulls the emergency chord, causing the train to come to an abrupt stop. The flustered mother receives a caution, but this incident proves to be a minor inconvenience compared to the various troubles that follow. Zheng Zheng has come to Dongguan to find Xin Xin’s absent father, but on arrival at his apartment building, is informed that he moved out some time ago. Stranded in an unfamiliar city and needing to support her son, Zheng Zheng takes a factory job, requesting as much overtime as possible while placing Xin Xin in day care. Her circumstances seem to improve when she embarks on a relationship with Hong Jin (Wei Xin), her work supervisor who migrated to Dongguan many years earlier, but any happiness is short-lived due to problems at the factory and Hong Jin’s reluctance to accept Xin Xin as his stepson due to the child’s disability. Zheng Zheng begins to wonder if her life would be easier without Xin Xin, with such thoughts leading to further emotional distress before the redemptive resolution, albeit one with legal consequences.
Although this is a state-approved production, the difficult nature of the material and Chen Miao’s uncompromising attitude towards her characters and their social conditions suggests relatively little interference from China’s film bureau. This is perhaps because Son of the Stars is sensitively addressing an isolated case of developmental disorder rather than making an over-arching statement about the widening social-economic gap that limits advice and care to those who are able to cover the bills. Authority figures, such as police officers, are seen to be doing their jobs diligently, often reminding Zheng Zheng of her responsibilities as a mother, while the aforementioned doctor’s visit is an example of the politics of absence in that it is referred to rather than seen. Yet despite sidestepping overt criticism of the state, the director still paints a grim picture of Dongguan, a grey factory landscape that is shrouded in pollution: the city has enough work for anyone who wants it, but offers little hope of a significantly better life. Zheng Zheng is able to travel and undertake employment opportunities due to revised rules regarding migration, but the type of employment available to her pays wages that are only sufficient for covering basic living expenses, while the people she encounters in Dongguan are unhelpful, unwelcoming, or even exploitative. The score by Daniel Alcheh and Deddy Tzur’s is a minor flaw, as it would be more suited to a television melodrama and is sometimes layered over pared-down images that would be more powerful without it, but Chen Miao otherwise favours observation over manipulation.
The director’s background in documentary is evident throughout, as this is a realistic study of a woman adrift in society: her son should offer some measure of motivation, but eventually becomes more of a burden. Chen Miao’s camera mostly maintains distance, encouraging an understanding of the social experience of a single mother with a limited skillset before directly examining Zheng Zheng’s increasingly fragile emotional state in the final third. The performances are convincing, with actors benefitting from their characters being placed in a series of painfully relatable situations: Zheng Zheng often makes misguided decisions, but Jing conveys her sheer determination in the face of endless obstacles, then psychological disintegration and denial when she can no longer cope. Xin Xin’s frequent outbursts are as distressing for the viewer as they are for his mother: Zheng Zheng’s insistence that Xin Xin is a nice boy who does not intend to cause any problems is largely ignored by those watching, who either do not understand the child’s condition, or simply do not want to. Even his unconditionally loving mother only learns of the exact term for her son’s disability when Hong Jin consults a doctor, her lack of knowledge entailing that she can only deal with Xin Xin’s symptoms as a series of particularly severe tantrums. A late scene in which Xin Xin is unable to verbally identify his mother at a police station is genuinely heartrending, if only because it could happen anywhere, and it is such universality that makes Son of the Stars so emotionally compelling.