A chamber yarn of lost innocence during the Cultural Revolution that packs a surprising punch under its naive, almost abstract telling, “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl” is a confident behind-the-camera debut by mainland China-born, San Francisco-based actress Joan Chen that may, however, prove too fragile to make much impact theatrically. But the pic is well worth a look by fest programmers and ancillary buyers, and augurs well for Chen if she chooses to pursue this direction in her career.
Based on a novella by Yan Geling — a writer originally from Shanghai whose “Siao Yu” was filmed in 1995 by Sylvia Chang — the film reps a considerable act of faith by Chen, who shot it without official clearance from China’s Film Bureau in a remote location on the Sichuan-Tibet border last year. Initially budgeted at $1 million, with coin coming from sources in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, according to Chen, pic was post-produced in California and officially flies under a U.S. limited partnership flag.
Given that all movies made on mainland soil technically require script clearance, a shooting permit and censorship clearance prior to export, the reaction from Beijing has yet to be gauged, following its world preem at Berlin. In addition, though the film never directly criticizes the Communist Party, or grandstands any political message, there’s still plenty here (not least in the sexual content) to give the authorities pause for thought.
The irony is that the movie might just as well have been made someplace like South Dakota: Early scenes, set in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, are shot from high angles and tightly framed, with no clues as to where they were shot; most of the rest of the film is set in vast, empty, rolling grasslands. Artistically, Chen has made the most of her budgetary limitations, with the pic having an intimacy from the start.
After an intro explaining the clumsy handle to the title — “sent-down” being the term for the 7.5 million young students dispatched to the countryside for manual labor during the Cultural Revolution — pic kicks off with young teen Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu) about to leave her family in Chengdu for a spell in a remote corner of Tibet. It’s 1975, when the Cultural Revolution was virtually played out, making the disruption of her education and family life all the more tragic.
Film’s sexual element, which comes to the fore as the story progresses, is introduced early on in a rear nude shot of the girl having a bath. Despite her cute, girlish face, it’s made clear that Xiu Xiu already has the ripe body of a young woman — plus a character that doesn’t take stick from anyone.
Cut to a year later, and she’s riding the range in Tibet, an exemplary student but without the right political connections to get sent home. Led to believe she’ll eventually head her own all-girl cavalry unit — a C.R. concept in fact long discarded — she agrees to go off to a remote spot to learn horse herding with a Tibetan saddle tramp, Lao Jin (Lopsang), who “lost his manhood” years ago in the Sino-Tibetan conflict.
Film basically describes their platonic love story, as Xiu Xiu’s teenage arrogance is worn down by the realities of their tough existence and her ideals are shattered when she realizes she’s been tricked by the authorities. Silently observed by the neutered Lao Jin, she trades sex for promises from passersby and officials, still hoping her favors will earn her the right to return home.
Given that pic is essentially a two-hander, and one of the characters is mostly taciturn, “Xiu Xiu” depends almost entirely on its female lead, 16-year-old newcomer Lu Lu (aka Li Xiaolu). It’s an amazingly mature and textured perf, moving from cute little doll through bossy brat to petulant young woman, without losing the essential innocence at the heart of the character.
Starting with her girlish open-air ablutions (the “heavenly bath” of the novella’s title) when she and Lao Jin reach their location, to the later scenes of sordid sex with faceless men, the actress exactly catches the hard-nosed Chinese pragmatism that saw millions of people through one of history’s most wasteful political exercises. In a largely reactive role, Tibetan-born actor Lopsang is also well cast.
Chen’s uncluttered direction and Taiwanese composer Johnny Chen’s melodious score give the movie an almost fairy-tale flavor that some Western viewers may feel is at odds with the tragic events portrayed. In this respect, however, Joan Chen shows her roots: Rather than being Western in perspective and flavor, “Xiu Xiu” has the emotional patterns of a mainland Chinese movie, even though direction and performances are reined in. The ending is genuinely moving, without going over the top.
Tech credits are all fine, with particular care paid to costumes and artifacts of the period, which have a lived-in quality.
For the record, Lu Lu bears an uncanny resemblance to the younger Chen in “Little Flower” (1979), a tragic melodrama that vaulted her to instant stardom at the age of 20, just before her move Stateside. Chen stated at her Berlin press conference that she turned to directing basically because she was fed up with making direct-to-video schlockers.