After a brief fling with highly stylized pyrotechnics in “Baober in Love,” veteran Chinese Fifth Generation helmer Li Shaohong (“Blush”) returns to her meller roots with “Stolen Life.” A riveting performance by Zhou Xun (star of “Baober” and ingenue femme fatale of “Suzhou River”) as a vulnerable young college student fuels this dark coming-to-consciousness tale of exploitation and abandonment. Li’s polished feminist eye-opener may lure urban arthouse auds, particularly due to its being front lined by the beauteous Zhou.
Yan’ni’s (Zhou) formative years were devoid of support and affection, according to narration by the heroine herself. Left to the untender mercies of her grandmother and aunt at birth, Yan’ni retreated into a stubborn silence, shunning her mother’s half-hearted overtures on her rare visits and finally escaping her family’s constant putdowns by secretly getting accepted into the university.
On her first day on campus, Yan’ni meets Muyu (Wu Jun, star of the Li-produced “Springtime in a Small Town”), a self-deprecating young truck driver. Soon she moves in with him. But Muyu is full of unwelcome surprises, like a chance-discovered infant and cleaver-wielding wife.
Yan’ni’s hindsight-wise voiceover admits she should have seen the holes in Muyu’s story, but such is the power of Wu’s thesping that the viewer is still inclined to believe in him. Yan’ni gets pregnant and Muyu guilt-trips her into having the baby instead of “selfishly” continuing her precious education; the couple spirals downward exponentially until Yan’ni is forced to give up her baby, repeating her mother’s past mistakes and taking her place in the long line of Muyu’s female victims.
Paradoxically, the early voiceover hints of Muyu’s duplicity serve to distance script’s potential sentimentality without lessening its emotional impact, particularly as Muyu’s character gets progressively more sinister, motivated by a potent mix of cynicism, class rage and misogynistic contempt. Though Li never militantly soapboxes the point, it is obvious that Yan’ni’s gender has contributed greatly to her perceived lack of worth, in contrast to Muyu’s sense of male entitlement.
Li’s unsentimental, solipsistic view of her characters objectifies their emotional turmoil. Thus Yan’ni, made to give up her studies, takes refuge underneath the mosquito netting around her and Muyu’s bed, dazedly munching on veggies or jotting obsessive notes on the walls without ever emerging from the netting’s folds.
When compelled by economic necessity to leave her womb-like hibernation, she gets caught up in the subterranean world just outside her basement apartment door, a maze that houses semi-clandestine shops and workspaces.
Yan’ni emerges from her nightmare purified and strengthened, her childhood stubbornness and adolescent radiance forged into mature self-possession. Working as a salesgirl in a modern mall with bright corridors that contrast with the underground bazaar, Yan’ni is firmly ensconced between university elitism and lower-class dispossession.
Tech credits are excellent, Gao Hu’s HD lensing maintaining variations of color and texture even in the interwinding passageways of the underclass world.