(director/writer: Joan Chen; screenwriter: based on the novella “Tian Yu” by Ms. Yan Ge-ling; cinematographer: Lu Yue; editor: Ruby Yang; cast: Lu Lu (Xiu Xiu), Lopsang (Lao Jin), Gao Jie (Mother), Li Qianqian (Sister), Lu Yue (Father), Qiao Qian (Chen Li), Luoyong Wang (Narrator); Runtime: 99; Stratosphere Films; 1998-China)

The flaw in the film comes with its bleak ending, that seemed to be contrived and used as a means of getting more sympathy out of the audience than it needed to.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A powerfully haunting film; it might leave one with some deep emotional pains over its human drama or turn one completely off by its obvious political intentions. It is an outstanding debut directorial effort by the Chinese-born actress Joan Chen (The Last Emperor) who filmed this political expose fable in China, near the Tibetan border on the steppes, without the official permission of the Chinese government. This film was banned in China and is one that they will be unlikely to be showing for quite awhile, as its negative reactions to Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1967-1976 is a blanket indictment against China’s attempt at mass indoctrination. The film shows this cultural experiment to be rife with incompetency, corruption, bureaucratic irresponsibility, and poor planning.

The Revolution was an attempt at reeducating the bourgeois masses in the city by means of removing over seven million students from their city families and placing them in the country’s rural provinces for mostly agricultural and factory training. Those with family connections to party officials or who paid off the right officials were not taken.

It’s a a coming-of-age story about a naive 15-year-old Chengdu city girl, Wen Xiu (Lu Lu), Xiu Xiu is her nickname. The story is set in 1975, during China’s Cultural Revolution, when she is removed from her poor but loving family, consisting of a mother and father and younger sister (her father is a tailor and makes her clothes). She is assigned to hard labor and after a year of outstanding service she is transferred for no apparent reason for a six months term to live on the remote plains of Tibet with Lao Jin (Lopsang), a middle-aged Tibetan master horse trainer and herder, where she is to be prepared to ride with the Educated Youth in the elite Iron Girls’ Cavalry. It is later on learned that this group doesn’t exist anymore. The film shows her going through no training as the herder is gone all day and she seems to be mostly looking through the kaleidoscope, a going away present that a young potential boyfriend gave her back in Chengdu.

The unusual relationship between the spirited Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin, who was emasculated in a tribal war and therefore is deemed safe for her to live with, is the heart and soul of the film. He is a Tibetan nomad, not much of a talker, more of an animal lover than a people person; he is someone quite used to being alone, and quite able to survive in the wilderness. For him one place is like another, so it makes no difference that he is in so barren a region.

Lao Jin takes his task to heart as her guardian and watches out for Xiu Xiu as best he can while secretly he develops an affection for her, as he watches her change from a homesick and modest young girl to someone who is absolutely tormented to be where she is. Xiu Xiu feels imprisoned living in this raggedy tent in the great outdoors, doing something this educated girl has no use for. It is sheer madness the way this program is administered and carried out, whereas no one comes for her when her time is up and there is no one there to tell her anything. That Xiu Xiu panics, thinking she will be left here for good, is understandable. By comparing her mood swings to the natural surroundings of the vast and changing sky the film shows how small she feels, how it has sunk into her how far apart she is from the things she loves to do and how much she misses her family. In one scene it shows Xiu Xiu getting dressed up in her best blouse and scarf for the officials to come after her six months were up, but no one comes. By contrast, it is shown how comfortable Lao Jin is here. After all, he didn’t have to relocate to a big city.

The film is narrated in an incredulous voice by a young man, Luoyong Wang, the one who longed to be her boyfriend and who is wishing that she will return, but not hopeful that he will hear from her again. He is not sent away because he has family political connections.

The power of the film is that it plays out an unsettling relationship between the innocent virgin Xiu Xiu, who at first is too bashful to undress before the older man and then out of desperation she meets a number of men who pretend to have influence at the local Communist headquarters and they mislead her into believing that they will use that influence to get her back to Chengdu. She has sex with them and thinks she is using them as a necessary means to help herself. She also gets to act like a bitch flaunting her sex in front of the embarrassed herder, who at one point calls her a whore. She has spoiled the pure relationship she had with Lao Jin, who is only trying to find a way to help her out of her desperate situation; but, he is too socially deficient to know how to help. It is a most interesting performance by this 16-year-old actress, Lu Lu, which gets the audience feeling sorry for her but, at the same time, feeling annoyed that she acts so badly against the saintly herder.

Equally effective is Lopsang as Lao Jin. He is someone who is crippled by his sexual inability to perform and can’t protect the girl from her sexual predators, even though he wanted to. His acting is seen through the hurt on his face and the gestures he makes that reflect how he is both paternal to her and burning with desire for her. But he is ineffective in dealing with people, as long ago he has given up making relationships and carrying on small talk. By the end of the film, he realizes that he can’t save the girl and his pained heart is apparent. It is a uniquely masterful performance, that seldom gets translated on the screen in such a true way as it does here.

The flaw in the film comes with its bleak ending, that seemed to be contrived and used as a means of getting more sympathy out of the audience than it needed to. It took away from the impact of this strange relationship, that had been mesmerizing and touching in a very real way. It returned the film to the heavy-handed symbolic message it had succeeded in avoiding throughout the telling of its energetic human drama. The beautiful camera shots of the landscape and the poetry of the girl’s loss of innocence were undermined to a certain degree by how this allegory finally unfolded. Xiu Xiu’s story is sad one, but one wonders if it was really so overwhelming as it is portrayed here. Nevertheless, this was a substantial film.