The film censors in the People’s Republic of China have deemed three subjects absolutely unacceptable. Films that portray the Cultural Revolution, the related movement that sent seven million urban youths to the countryside to learn from uneducated peasants, or love triangles are banned in China before they are ever even screened. Xiu, Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, the directorial debut from Joan Chen, depicts not one but all three of these taboo issues.
It’s not a surprise, then, that after reading the script the Chinese government refused to give Chen permits to film in China. She and acclaimed Chinese novelist and screenwriter Yan Geling filmed there anyway unbeknownst to the authorities. After the film swept the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s version of the Oscars, winning awards for best director, script, picture, actress, actor and original song, the Chinese government fined Chen for ten percent of the film’s budget of $1 million dollars.
In the West, Chen could not have asked for better publicity. Xiu Xiu, which opens May 7 in the U.S., has already been acclaimed by critics in Germany and will, I’m sure, get rave reviews wherever it plays. It is a beautiful film. Of course, the fact that the Chinese government has imposed a sizable fine on Chen won’t hurt either. Well known for her work in The Last Emperor of China and Twin Peaks, Chen has already been featured in a recent issue of Time. And as if the film weren’t already politicized enough, Xiu Xiu features a castrated Tibetan , who for many American viewers will represent Tibet’s struggle for independence.
Thursday, Yan attended a screening of Xiu Xiu at Images, presented a lecture entitled “From Fiction to Film: Censorship in Contemporary China” and then answered numerous questions from curious audience members. In answering one question, she insisted that she had not consciously written the character to represent any political movement.
Yan also answered the all-important question of for whom the film was made. She answered that ultimately she and Chen made the film for themselves. However, one must assume that Chen also had a Western audience in mind. Xiu Xiu, although its story is inherently Chinese, has a very Western sensibility and a different spin on the Chinese optimism that permeates the films of other Chinese directors including Zhang Yimou.
Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl follows the life of Wen Xiu (“Xiu Xiu”), a teenager in Chengdu who is forced as a part of the Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1977 to leave school, join the People’s Liberation Army, and relocate to the countryside. Once in the countryside, Xiu Xiu is assigned to work in a factory. However, after several months she is reassigned to learn horse herding from a taciturn Tibetan herder named Lao Jin. Xiu Xiu must leave the factory commune and spend six months living in tent with Lao Jin. Although Lao Jin trys to cater to Xiu Xiu’s whims, she cannot adjust to her new subsistence lifestyle.
Both Lu Lu as Wen Xiu and Lopsang as Lao Jin give stellar performances, although at first both Xiu Xiu’s and Lao Jin’s characters are difficult to accept. At times Xiu Xiu is unbelievably innocent. No teenager in the last thirty years has been less jaded, which makes Xiu Xiu’s fall from innocence that much more desperate and tearful. Lu Lu captures this nearly inhuman innocence effortlessly, and her hopelessness later in film is just as believable. Lopsang’s character is as unbelievably detached as Lu Lu’s is naÃ¯ve. Yan explained Lao Jin’s extremely distant persona stemmed from the Tibetan life view that each person must chose his own path in life and not interfere in the choices of others. However, Lao Jin’s deep concern and unspoken understanding of Xiu Xiu endears him to the audience. His position as the castrated male who ultimately saves Xiu Xiu raises questions both political and social. Yan explained that in Lao Jin, she had tried to create a completely noble character; however his power and nobility are at least partially hindered by his position on the fringe of society.
Chen’s film is an epic visual masterpiece. Nearly each shot of the landscape is absolutely breathtaking. Setting the film in the open steppes of western China, not far from Tibet, Chen took advantage of the enormous expanses of sky, the unpredictable weather, including torrential rainstorms and a glorious rainbow, and an untarnished landscape with vibrant wild flowers and a silver snaking river. This untamed wilderness where the film was shot would have overwhelmed most actors, but the beautiful Lu Lu manages to stand out even against the severe backgrounds.
Based Yan’s short story “The Celestial Bath,” which Yan expanded for the film, Xiu Xiu is at least semi-autobiographical. Both Chen and Yan were born and grew in China. Chen lived in Chengdu and Yan joined the People’s Liberation Army at age 12 when all the city schools were shut down. Yan said that the story was based on the experiences of several friends and acquaintances who had been sent down. Yan continued that Chinese films portraying recent Chinese history are fantasized histories. No director would dare to make a film about his own life.
Fantasized history is an incredibly apt term to describe Xiu Xiu. In fact, the term explains much about the film, including its often overt use of romanticism and the film’s inevitable ending. The nostalgic male narrator, who had as a boy been in love with Xiu Xiu, fantasizes her history. At the beginning of the film, the narrator states that he knew that he had “lost Xiu Xiu forever” when she left Chengdu. Hearing only snatches of information about her life, he imagines Xiu Xiu’s existence in the country, creating a story for her that is at times brutal but at least allows Xiu Xiu to finally find peace in her harsh life.
Xiu Xiu is in Mandarin with English subtitles. The screening was sponsored by the Bernhard Committee and the Department of Asian Studies.