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The Boston Phoenix China Syndrome

Xiu Xiu must go on

By Peter Keough

JUNE 1, 1999:  Lately, Chinese films, at least those that find American distribution, have been caught up in the melodrama of virginal young heroines victimized by a ruthless universe. In most cases, the issue is more emotional than political. Ye Da-Ying's Red Cherry stood out as a wrenching, visually striking chronicle of a cherubic innocent violated by the horrors of history during World War II. Next week The King of Masks, by veteran director Wu Tianming, will feature a little girl who must disguise herself as a boy to survive the brutally misogynist society of pre-war China.

More controversial, though, is Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. It takes place in the mid '70s, during the Cultural Revolution, and for Chinese authorities, it clearly hit closer to home. Its first-time director, actress Joan Chen, engaged in guerrilla filmmaking while shooting in Tibet in order to evade the official censors and bring this scathing indictment of sexism and soulless bureaucracy to the screen. The result both suffers and benefits from its disjointedness and diatribe. Neo-realistic but also lyrical and dreamlike, manipulative but also tragic and elegiac, Xiu Xiu marks the debut of a determined, passionate, gifted filmmaker.

Now an overlooked episode in the history of barbarism, the Cultural Revolution sought to eliminate all social distinctions by, among other means, shipping educated city kids to primitive frontier regions. Among those exiled is the precocious gamine Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu), who takes one last bath before leaving her home town of Chengdu with a company of fellow teenagers. Issued parkas, they climb on trucks while martial music shrieks from loudspeakers and families and friends wave goodbye. Among those watching her leave is Li Chuanbei (Qian Zheng), whose voiceover narrates the beginning of the film. Smitten with Xiu Xiu, he is not brave enough to follow her -- he himself has escaped being "sent down" through family connections (Chen herself escaped this fate when chosen to attend the state acting school in 1975).

What follows will be a love story, but not necessarily young Chuanbei's. Once in the hinterlands, Chen wastes little time establishing the hypocrisy and corruption of the Revolution. In one funny but sinister scene, regimented youths watch similar regimented youths on a movie screen. The projector breaks down and so does the illusion of solidarity, with Xiu Xiu starting a row with a comrade who can't keep his hands to himself.

The threat becomes more tangible when she's relocated to the Tibetan wastes, sharing a tent with Lao Jin (Lopsang), a herdsman legendary not so much for his riding skills and marksmanship as for losing his manhood when captured during a tribal war. But the laconic, long-suffering loner proves a patient host to Xiu Xiu's frustration and boredom; in one touching scene he digs a rustic bath for her in the stark grasslands.

This touch of civilized comfort is not enough for Xiu Xiu, however, and neither is it any guarantee of her continuing virtue. As time passes (Chen's narrative continuity is a little jagged, no doubt due to the straitened circumstances of the film's production), she realizes that the officials who sent her there have either forgotten or abandoned her. A passing peddler informs her that the "educated youth" have long since been disbanded and are scrambling for return permits home. But he's a person with connections, and if she needs a permit too . . . In the first of many such excruciating scenes, Xiu Xiu complies.

The word gets out, and petty officials come via ox cart, motorcycle, and tractor (a shot of the latter, creeping along the side of a hill to the tent, its headlights glowing like a malevolent insect, is typical of Chen's eye for the majestic, poignant and surreal image) to take advantage of the increasingly deluded girl as her impotent protector looks on. Finally, though, the victimization is too much. Its Samuel Beckett-like nihilism succumbs to D.W. Griffith-style bathos -- this blossom just gets broken again and again.

A political interpretation is inevitable given China's growing, ambiguous presence in the news these days. Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin perhaps represent the purity of China's future and past, both exploited by callous bureaucrats, ideologues, and ruthless self-seekers. More lingering, though, is the film's sublimely acted pathos, limpid visual beauty, and tone of sadness and loss. When Chuanbei's voiceover returns in the end, it's to acknowledge that the consolation of art is all that remains when the courage to act falters.


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