Making a film with one child actor can be challenging; imagine making a film set in a boarding kindergarten in post-revolutionary China, with a cast full of four-and-five year olds. That's the task director Zhang Yuan took on in bringing to life his film Little Red Flowers, which is showing in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance. The film opens with not-quite-four-year-old Quiang being dragged, literally, to a boarding kindergarten, where he is unceremoniously deposited by the man who is delivering him there. Quiang has a hard time adjusting to the strict and regimented routine of the kindergarten. The head teacher, Miss Li, and her assistants, give little red crepe paper flowers to the children who do especially well at conforming to the school's routine by learning to dress and undress themselves, obey their teachers, and poop every morning on demand.
At the heart of the film is the young actor who plays Quiang, who is so adorable and expressive the audience falls in love with him from his first moments on screen. The film has funny moments, but also heartbreaking ones as Quiang struggles (and repeatedy fails) to fit in and earn the coveted flowers. Quiang is a non-conformist in a world where conformity is highly prized, and the militaristic oppression of the kindergarten seems to crush his tiny soul. Everything in the children's lives is strictly regulated, from the precise way in which they must raise a hand to ask for more soup or rice, to the way they are expected to use the bathroom en masse, squatting in a line over a gutter-toilet, to the way their bottoms are washed, one-by-one, every night before bed. When Quiang tries to express his personality, he is called a "freak" by the other children, most of whom refuse to even play with him.