BFI 53rd London Film Festival
Guo Xiaolu’s She, a Chinese (2009)

It’s that time of year again when the London Film Festival winds down and we anticipate the provocative treats in store at the forthcoming Korean Film Festival, held as usual at the Barbican Centre but supported this year by a special Bong Joon-ho retrospective in the BFI Southbank. Among the highlights are a Director’s Cut of Park Chan-wook’s blockbuster Thirst which will be introduced by the director himself; Scandal Makers, the new film from Kang Hyung-chul about a celebrity radio show host who is hit by a “comic” paternity scandal; and a tantalising new film from Kim Ki-duk entitled Dream. In the meantime, I want to post briefly on last night’s film at the L.F.F., She, A Chinese, the first feature-length drama from prolific Chinese author and poet Guo Xiaolu (key text: “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers”).

The film plays in two parts (a smalltown life in rural China; a cosmopolitan one in London) and Guo structures events in novella form, incorporating whimsical intertitles to comment on her central character's predicament. Li Mei (Huang Lu) is a Chinese peasant girl who lives in a village somewhere outside of Chongqing; she scrapes together an existence barely above the poverty line, performing menial tasks for her dismissive mother and oversees a local stall for pool-playing layabouts who ritually ignore her as a growing and desirable woman. An apparently remote but anxious girl, Mei dismisses her mother's undignified (but still honest) work by taking off with a petty gangster, but when she refuses him sex she winds up in the arms of another admirer, a local truck driver, who unceremoniously rapes her. As a consequence, Mei moves opportunistically from one sexual encounter to another and over the course of the film arrives finally in London where she suffers the same asphyxiating isolation that stifled her back home — her one saving grace is her exoticism. The spectre of Orientalism is therefore writ large here; more troublingly, the protagonist takes full advantage of her exoticism in the hope of settling her life.

Li Mei (Lu Huang) in She, a Chinese (2009)

I have problems with the film but I also want to defend it. On the first matter: narrative. In her director’s statement Guo says “it is crucial to show the process of leaving, the inner journey she is going through, a person taking risks, discovering herself and at the same time paying a high price.” Which is fine, except that some of the crucial acts of “discovery” and “risk” that Mei takes (which set in motion her flight from China) are withheld from the viewer. Scenes in which Mei exchanges (hitman) Spikey’s money for foreign currency (for the first time), or the totally alien business of booking her first plane ticket (even if it is part of a guided tour package), are absent here. Similarly, we never see Mei take Spikey’s money from the mattress (the act is inferred), yet it is the riskiest transgression she will ever make in her adult life (she is stealing mob money). Other omissions include: Mei’s seduction of the grumpy senior citizen, Mr Hunt (Geoffrey Hutchings), which somehow leads to their marriage of convenience; her best friend was evidently instrumental in helping her to leave her village for Chongqing, but she barely registers in the first act; and presumably Mei’s G.P. arranged for her first antenatal visit and the ultrasound scan, but how on Earth did she swing that in light of her ignorance of British culture and lack of papers?

In the post-screening Q & A someone asked simply if the director liked the film’s protagonist. Frustratingly (deliberately or otherwise), the question was lost and no answer forthcoming, but it raised an important issue about the film’s autobiographical status, and of Guo’s connection with a girl who may or may not be a film-idea of her self. It’s clear we aren’t meant to “like” her in the conventional sense (of the redundant, i.e., “transparent” figure of the classical narrative), but it’s alright to feel attracted to her because she is “enigmatic,” because she is “risky”; the trouble is, she’s also sullen, wan, and more than a bit easy. Then there is the question of whether or not she is deliberately using her lovers to stabilise her own screwed up emotions. On that note, Guo has said that Mei is something of a “tease” despite herself, that she is not a “victim,” and that her lust for everything ranging from the close personal intimacy of relationships and the passion of fucking (all equated with a swollen appetite for food) to the environment itself and the aural sensation of living in a vibrant, otherworldly city guides her through life. So whether or not we like Mei isn’t, perhaps, a concern; the film’s success hinges, rather, on the authenticity of her desires and her lust for new sexual partners; I also think, therefore, that our identification with the joy, passion, disappointments and failure of her experiences is a key part of this: the film, finally, mirrors us.

Two points, then: I don’t personally buy Guo’s claim that Mei is a tease (this admission sounds polemical); her character is partly redeemed by the fact that her lovers mistreat her: Rachid (Chris Ryman), an Indian Muslim, abandons her once she is pregnant; a petty gangster (Wu Leiming), likewise, when she rejects his advances; and was it not simply a matter of time before her relationship with the nameless hitman (Wei Yibo) was soured by infidelity and physical abuse? Secondly, some critics have pulled up the film for being little more than a series of episodic sketches which the director uses to frustrate our “desire to understand” — see Daniel Trilling’s ‘LFF #4: She, a Chinese’ in New Statesman, Dan Fainaru’s review in Screen Daily, Ray Bennett’s review for The Hollywood Reporter, and Dereck Elley’s ‘She, a Chinese’ in Variety. I don’t have a problem with Guo’s approach because the film substantiates any anti-classical stance she may have. (I hesitate to draw on the term “vignettes,” because I feel like I’m trading on language personalised by an old friend, but the term nevertheless infers a mode of thinking, a means of private expression, that I think characterises the film well. She, A Chinese is a life in vignettes; it is a life of vignettes also.)

As I’ve said, it feels like a mature yet angry piece of filmmaking that isn’t without some genuinely uncomfortable (for being so authentic) emotions — emotions which speak to anyone who has moved on perhaps prematurely from a lover to prevent a situation from deteriorating further, or those who may have simultaneously admired and loathed from afar the endlessly fortunate few that move from relationship to relationship without a sense of real loss or affection, and who seem to do so to their own great advantage. The “survivors” of our kind.

29 October, 2009


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