Feng Xiaogang is setting up a platform (by way of his story) for debating the costs of disasters, natural and man-made, and by extension, the costs and benefits of any Chinese modernization projects.
To the extent that the film is a national allegory, the mother-daughter rift and reconciliation dramatize for the Chinese viewer what in essence is a democratic process to negotiate self-interests and national policies. Unlike Confucianism and communism in practice in which loyalty and obedience are demanded but not earned, a democratic society is one in which respect, loyalty and obedience are built upon individual consent, mutual respect and common decency.
To see this point, one needs to be somewhat knowledgeable about Chinese tradition and the traditional family structured on Confucian three guides (ruler guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife) and five constant virtues: (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity) which later evolve into five sets of universal human relationships (ruler-subject, father-son, older brother-younger brother, husband-wife, and friends). When such moral presuppositions become institutionalized we see a social matrix in which children don’t call their father by name; apprentice does talk about his master’s faults (子不言父名；徒不言师讳). For parents and children to say “I am sorry” to one another as equals the way people do in this film suggests a cultural or social practice that is by and large unheard of and nonexistent in traditional China.
(三纲五常 sān gang wǔ cháng): 君为臣纲，父为子纲，夫为妻纲; 君为臣纲，君不正，臣投他国．国为民纲，国不正，民起攻之．父为子纲，父不慈，子奔他乡．子为父望，子不正，大义灭亲．夫为妻纲，夫不正，妻可改嫁．妻为夫助，妻不贤，夫则休之．—《封神演义》五伦：君臣、父子、兄弟、夫妻、朋友；五常：仁、义、礼、智、信) The ruler guides his subjects; if the ruler has no integrity, the subjects would ingratiate themselves to other rulers; the kingdom guides the people, if the kingdom is unjust, the people would rise up in revolt; father guides the son, if the father is unkind, the son would move to other places to live; the son is the hope of the father, if the son is delinquent, he should be put down in spite of kinship; the husband guides the wife, if the husband has no integrity, the wife would want to remarry; the wife assists the husband, if she lacks virtue, the husband would divorce her. _____taken from The Creation of Gods, a classical novel written in the 1600s in Ming Dynasty
Since 1911 when China became a Republic, the first one in Asia, the country became “modern” because of its subjugation by Western powers. Chinese culture and society at the time were marked by a critical reflection on Confucian values and attitudes as outdated, archaic, repressive, dehumanizing, and responsible for China’s stagnation and backwardness. In 1919 May Fourth New Cultural Movement 五四新文化运动, many educated people argued that China needed Mr. De (democracy) and Mr. Sai (science). Among the many Western political ideologies and social thoughts competing for supremacy in China, communism became the most influential and prevalent until Mao’s death in 1976. There was a vacuum or faith deficit left by the collapse of communism as a political ideology; the film offers answers to the moral crisis many in China experience when capitalism creates greater disparity between the rich and poor. Other than a shared dream of a prosperous future, what would hold China together? Feng Xiaogang tries to answer that question in the film.
The boyfriend represents post-socialist thinking of the me generation, “slapped” in the face by the old generation of socialists with strong faith in the collective ideals.