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Wisdom with an expiration date

Diedie Weng captures generational distance and tension in ‘The Beekeeper and his Son’

Diedie Weng, a Chinese director known previously for her short documentaries, has, “sought to capture the personal ways in which [two] worlds and times met and crashed into each other” in her first feature film, The Beekeeper and his Son. Shot through an intimate first-person point-of-view as a fictional documentary, the film records a time of transition and growing tension between the younger and older generations in an increasingly industrial China. Diedie’s film considers the differences and distance between the two generations, attempting to find a common ground between them amidst a rapidly changing world.

In its opening shots, the film highlights the transition into industrialization by presenting shifting frames of the city skyline and the rural bees hives. Coming from the city, Maofu, a quiet and thoughtful young adult, returns to his rural family home with ideas  to expand his father’s small beekeeping business. Lao Yu, Maofu’s father, instead insists that his son must primarily learn and understand the art of beekeeping. Seemingly products of their respective generations, Lao Yu and Maofu’s diverging goals seem to drive them apart and augment a growing gap between the two and their respective generations.

Diedie Weng captures the veteran beekeeper’s deep, intricate knowledge as she follows his work and mentoring through all four seasons of the year. Lao Yu’s decades of dedication made him stable and independent, but his old age leaves Maofu to support the family and the hives. Seemingly due to the effects of increased industrialization, Lao Yu witnesses the environmental degradations on his dying bee colonies. These unprecedented obstacles render Lao Yu unsure about the future of his family business. He cannot foresee stability for the family’s beekeeping because Maofu, perhaps influenced by increasing modernization, seems to lack the patience and incentive to learn beyond beekeeping’s basics, ultimately reaching for dreams beyond the bees.

Weng depicts Maofu as dreamy and silent. After studying in the city for a year, Maofu returns with new ideas for marketing and the expansion of honey sales. Maofu’s treatment of beekeeping as a means to success rather than a long-practiced family art suggests the palpable influence of capitalist sensibility that often persists in industrial areas. Maofu’s aspirations leaves him blind to the importance of beekeeping knowledge.  As Lao Yu focuses on passing the knowledge of beekeeping and Maofu focuses on the monetary utility of the be colonies, Weng documents the inability for one generation to understand and effectively listen to  the other. Weng depicts the effects of this lack of communication by showing a long lonely shot of Maofu digging out a small cave as he builds his bee colony, then looking out into the rain.  Lacking Lao Yu’s guidance and understanding, Maofu’s situation invokes feelings of not belonging, as Maofu embraces a different goal than his father. Weng also suggests that Lao Yu feels out of touch, as he does not understand Maofu’s aspirations to pursue higher education and success in a life beyond the beehive. This mutual lack of understanding in a rapidly changing world strains effective communication between the father and son, and more generally between the two generations, as Maofu is left to figure out this new way of life on his own. Lao Yu can only remind his son to stay grounded and embrace the wisdom passed down through generations, which otherwise may be lost during the uncertain future of the family’s beekeeping.  

In the emerging industrial China, life changes faster than one can comprehend, leaving the family rootless and the younger generation almost isolated. Although the ending is unresolved, the film documents some setbacks of industrialization including a decrease in familial support and communication. Although the world seems to change too fast for Lao Yu’s wisdom to be of any use, his age and experience still gives him perspective as he witnesses the setbacks of industrialization. Focused on passing on the art of beekeeping, Lao Yu cannot effectively warn his son about the incoming obstacles and the importance of knowing the bees. While Weng makes connections between these obstacles and the tangible generational divide, The Beekeeper and his Son also suggests that perhaps a candid exchange of wisdom and ideas between both generations can bring about solutions to shared problems. Diedie Weng’s film provides a glimpse at the generational tension that complicates China’s transition into an industrial nation, ultimately highlighting the divergent goals and silence between generations, and questions how this divide will impact families and global conditions amidst rapid change.