Review: ‘The Mosuo Sisters’

Cogs in the very big wheel of China's increasingly globalized economy, the titular ethnic sisters illustrate how the international vagaries of financial fortune play havoc with lives whose paths would have been predictable a generation or two ago.

Cogs in the very big wheel of China’s increasingly globalized economy, the titular siblings in “The Mosuo Sisters” illustrate how the vagaries of international financial fortune wreak havoc on lives whose paths would have been utterly predictable a generation or two ago. Keeping the focus strictly on individuals, Marlo Poras’ engrossing documentary will make an excellent broadcast item, and could carve out a small theatrical niche for enterprising distribs.

A tiny ethnic minority, the Mosuo are a subject of fascination (and considerable misunderstanding) among the larger Chinese population for their matriarchal structure and traditional practice of “walking marriage,” in which husband and wife each remain living primarily under their mothers’ roofs even after children are born.

But wedlock is not much on the minds of the sisters at the outset. Resourceful 25-year-old Juma is largely supporting her family back home, as well as younger sister Latso’s studies, by singing in a Beijing nightclub. It’s not particularly enjoyable work — especially when a customer with possible criminal ties turns stalker — but it’s a gig that’s missed when the worldwide economic downturn forces the business to shutter.

Juma follows a steady boyfriend (also a singer) to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, in search of other employment, while Latso is forced to give up her accounting courses and return to backbreaking manual labor on the family farm. But despite each sister’s initially clear ambitions, things don’t turn out as either expect, their eventual choices underlining the paramount importance of familial and class roots despite all of present-day China’s opportunities for upward mobility.

Ultimately, “The Mosuo Sisters” is a well-shot, confidently crafted feature with the firm narrative drive of an old-fashioned novel, one that puts its leading figures’ fates at the fore, and lets the viewer interpret the larger sociopolitical meanings as they will.

The Mosuo Sisters

Production

A Marlo Poras Prods. and ITVS production in association with Caam. Produced by Marlo Poras, Yu Ying Wu Chou. Executive producer, David Sutherland. Directed by Marlo Poras.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Poras; editor, Amy Foote; music, Shawn James Seymour; music supervisor, Ben Davis; sound, Jim Sullivan. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (Documentary -- Pan Asia), Jan. 30, 2013. (Also in Doc NYC.) Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Juma, Latso, Atse, Ahlan. (Mandarin, Tibetan, Mosuo dialogue)

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