REVIEW: Actress Chen Creates Excruciating Beauty in Debut "Xiu Xiu"
by Danny Lorber
Actress Joan Chen makes her directorial debut with “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl,” opening Friday in Los Angeles and now playing in New York. The film is the latest bit of cinematic art to offend the Chinese government, for Chen has been forced to pay a fine to the government and the film has been banned from playing there. Chen engaged in guerrilla filmmaking while shooting in Tibet in order to evade the official censors and bring this scathing indictment of soulless bureaucracy that permeates China’s government to the screen. Tragic and elegiac, Xiu Xiu marks the debut of a determined, passionate and talented filmmaker.
Taking place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the film dramatizes a society that sought to eliminate all social distinctions by, among other means, shipping educated city kids to primitive frontier regions. Among those exiled is the precocious Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu), who takes one last bath before leaving her hometown 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 voice-over 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 but for the torture he suffered when captured during a tribal war – he was castrated. But the 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 land.
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 strained 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. . . . In the first of many such excruciating scenes, Xiu Xiu complies.
The word gets out, and petty officials come via motorcycle and tractor to take advantage of the increasingly deluded girl as her impotent protector looks on. The movie is ravishing to look at – it has the air of a neo-realist art film, and though inconsistent, it feels like a poem of images. Chen and director of photography Lu Yue achieve some startlingly fresh images – such as the view of a search party’s flashlights wandering like fireflies in the black of night – and Chen knows not to linger on them too long. Only towards the film’s end, when wintry landscapes are made to substitute for characterization too many times, do the effects become too pictorial.
That said, Xiu Xiu is an ambitious and accomplished directorial debut. Chen seems to instantly emerge as a serious filmmaker here, and it seems that her lyrical story telling and metaphorical, representative imagery will mold a little more comfortably as she gets a little bit more experience under her belt. “Xiu, Xiu” seems like it’s the work of an experienced film artist, despite its flaws. The fact that the work is a first time effort from a glamorous actress – who has been stuck starring in cheesy American B-movies and cable TV fare — is a revelation.