Left on her own to make a living in rural China, a young wife finds professional mourning is a lucrative business in “Cry Woman,” a small-scale but accessible production that should slide easily into festival slots and specialized webs showcasing world cinema. This third feature by Mainland Chinese helmer Liu Bingjian, best known for the ironic look at homosexuality, “Men & Women” (1999), is his most polished pic to date, and a marvelously true portrait of contempo Mainland life in all its contradictions, both humorous and hard.
Though shot in China, the film was officially made by Vancouver-registered Asparas Films, largely with South Korean coin, after the script was officially rejected by the Chinese authorities. Liu’s previous two features were both refused distribution certificates, though “Men & Women” attended a large number of overseas fests.
The feisty Wang Guixiang (Liao Qin) scrapes by making a living hawking pirate VCDs and DVDs on the streets of Beijing. One day, when she’s also looking after the young daughter (Zhu Jiayue) of some friends, her whole life changes: her wares are confiscated by the police, the friends skip town and abandon their kid, and her husband, Xu Changgeng (Li Longjun), is arrested after he blinds a fellow gambler (Wu Shengli) in a mahjong game.
Guixiang and her friends are shipped back to their native province, Guizhou, by the cops while Changgeng is put in jail. Still unable to trace the young kid’s parents, Guixiang gets the help of a former b.f., Li Youming (Wei Xingkun), who’s now married but helps her find the child some foster parents.
When the gambler with the damaged eye comes around demanding compensation, and gives her two months to raise up with the dough, Guixiang breaks down in a theatrical lament. This gives Youming — who by now has taken up again with Guixiang — the idea of her going into the professional mourner business.
The film, which was largely worked out on location with the actors, has some peripheral humor with the idea of Youming touring the local hospital and scanning the newspapers for imminent deaths they can service. And one very funny scene has them in the middle of some sack athletics when the news breaks on TV that someone has died, bringing an abrupt end to their coitus with a cry of, “We’re in business!”
But just when the movie looks like becoming a Chinese riff on black comedies like “Undertaker’s Paradise” or “Happy Funeral Director,” the focus returns to Guixiang herself, as she ruthlessly makes a living to pay off her creditors and hopefully bail her hubby out of prison. However, nothing works out as expected, and Guixiang finds it’s a hard, lonely world out there, especially if you’re minting yuan out of others’ grief.
The pic’s message is, in fact, very conservative for today’s China: that making money is easy but finding emotional fulfillment is harder. The portrait both of Beijing life at the start and of small-town provincial life thereafter rings utterly true in a very natural way. Pic has none of the self-conscious alienation that afflicts many Chinese indies and an easy tempo free of unnecessary longueurs. Lensing of the Guizhou locations by d.p. Xu Wei is crisp and well-composed without being postcard-y, and Liu’s visual style, apart from being spare with closeups, is free of arty tics.
Driving the film is a terrific performance by screen newcomer Liao (a real-life Peking Opera performer) as the title character. Entirely believable as a driven, streetwise young woman who would sing a heartbreaking funeral lament one minute, and casually strip off to service a prison governor the next, Liao recalls more established actresses like Tao Hong with her tough-but-tender trashiness. As her former b.f. who’s happy to do business with her but not tie the knot, Wei is quietly supportive.