At first glance, Zhai Yixiang’s “Mosaic Portrait” looks like it pursues the same semi-journalistic agenda as so much social-issue cinema: Xu Ying (Zhang Tongxi), a 14-year-old girl from a rural Chinese village, is discovered to be pregnant, and names one of her schoolteachers as the father. Ying’s father, Xu Guangjun (Wang Yanhui) — a frequently absent migrant worker — along with school authorities and visiting reporter Jia (Wang Chuanjun), who takes an interest in the case, attempt to piece together the truth of the situation. They are all excessively concerned with Ying’s predicament, yet somehow unable to conceive of Ying’s place within it, and so the men tussle over the sullen teen like dogs over a bone, vying with each other without ever really looking at her.
And for a time, it seems that director Zhai will do the same. Ying is initially depicted, in DP Wang Weihua’s steady, handheld style, from far away or partially offscreen or with her unknowable eyes hidden behind the swoop of her bangs. We’re introduced to her wearing a blindfold, as she visits an optician to treat her suddenly failing eyesight (blindness, defocusing and the cataract-milkiness of the enveloping country fog also gives the cinematography an evocative motif). Her hesitant interview with Jia puts Ying literally behind frosted glass.
Her father has run-ins with the stonewalling headmaster (Chen Di); the reporter pesters the local police; the villagers gossip; and somewhere the decision is made that Ying should carry the pregnancy to term, less because of pro-life sentiment than because it will make the DNA tests more effective. Ying herself is not consulted, which echoes the troubling legacy of China’s erstwhile one-child policy. There, too, it was the bodies and psyches of women and girls that naturally bore the greatest brunt of the harsh enforcement, often carried out by largely male authorities.
But then Ying is brought slowly into focus: a solitary figure gaining definition as she emerges from the mists that swirl through this lonely village. She starts to own her story, but not because she represents anything as simple as a monolithic truth. Far from “solving the problem” of Ying’s rape (which despite test results retains a degree of ambiguity), Zhai’s film dares to suggest the girl is not a problem to be solved at all — or if she is, it is one that no one has access to but herself.
“Before all this, no one ever really noticed me” Ying tells Jia, but not in a preening teenage way that the words might suggest. Instead she speaks dispassionately — a bald statement of fact that brings her neither pleasure nor pain in first-time actress Zhang’s performance, remarkably committed to her character’s self-possessed strangeness. There is a mystery in “Mosaic Portrait,” but it is the unsolvable mystery of a girl at odds with her environment and her upbringing, struggling to understand her sense of difference in a society that would insist that everyone is the same.
Ideas about animal cruelty and captivity recur. Ying, herself trapped several times over, visits an aquarium where a pod of dolphins, ethereally white in the underwater lighting, swim in circles above her head. She also attends a bullfight and later confesses to a sympathetic social worker (Liu Yiying) that as a child she used to beat bullfrogs to death. There is so much more to the protagonist than helpless victimhood, and it is this invested respect for her juddering, spiky development that makes “Mosaic Portrait” so unusual a depiction of teenager, not only in a Chinese context, but abroad too, where adolescent disaffection can be condescendingly portrayed as an affectation — a mere phase.
The film’s unexpected final act leaps to the city, to an institution for troubled youths, where Ying finally seems to be finding some peace. She even extends a helping hand to another girl (Ke Limu), relating to her the old story of the blind men and the elephant. The fable parallels the film’s formal experiment: the blind men each describe only a part of a whole they cannot comprehend. So it is with the slowly accruing power of this subtly destabilizing film: The impressions of Ying from others can never hope to describe the totality of her, making this a psychologically inclined project that in itself sets “Mosaic Portrait” apart from the social realist tradition with which it initially flirts. If realism in cinema means mirroring the world as it is, then Zhai’s film, as the title suggests, is that mirror shattered and the pieces reassembled into a picture far more elusive and abstract. And also in its way, more honest, because it refers, in the gaps between those glinting shards, to the mystery of all we can never know about each other, and perhaps can only rarely know about ourselves.