Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl

By Marjorie Baumgarten

AUGUST 9, 1999: 

D: Joan Chen; with Lu Lu, Lopsang, Gao Qiang. (R, 99 min.)

Actress Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks) makes an impressive debut as a film director with this evocative Chinese drama. The story is a period piece set during the years of the Cultural Revolution when, among other things, Chinese youth were relocated (or "sent down") from the cities and towns to the most remote corners of the country in order to work and be indoctrinated. The movie tells the sad story of Wen Xiu (Lu Lu), nicknamed Xiu Xiu (pronounced "Show Show"), a playful 15-year-old girl who is sent from the city of Cheng-du to the plains of Tibet. Initially filled with optimism and courage about leaving home, Xui Xiu's fortunes take a turn when her pluck and good spirit are rewarded with an assignment to the barren countryside of Tibet, where she is to train in horse riding and herding in order to eventually lead the illustrious Girls' Iron Cavalry. She is sent to train with Lao Jin (Lopsang), a loner and an expert horseman whose company poses no threat since it is a well-known secret that he was castrated years before in battle. The movie details the tentative but affecting relationship that grows between this naive but opinionated teen and her solemn and aloof trainer. They live together on opposite sides of his patched tent, finding a chaste and awkward harmony with each other in the wide-open space of the countryside. Then, on the morning of her six-month anniversary, Xiu Xiu dresses in her finest clothes and waits outside the tent for Headquarters to come fetch her as promised. No one comes. After days of waiting, a traveling peddler tells her that the cavalry unity has been disbanded and that the only way to get back to Cheng-du is through the help of influential friends. He gives her a red apple, then takes her virginity. Thus begins a long spell of visiting "friends" who come by to take sexual advantage of Xiu Xiu, who believes this is the only way to get back home. Told with little dialogue, the film is nevertheless moving. Chen demonstrates strong visual storytelling sensibilities, creating images that are haunting and penetrating with a minimum of fussiness. Deep motivational structure is lacking, so the characters retain a certain mystery even unto the end. Also awkward is the film's narrative voice: The story is told as a memory/fantasy of a Cheng-du playmate of Xiu Xiu's, a boy who had a crush on her. His voiceover narration is problematic. He freely admits that he never knew what happened ultimately to Xiu Xiu, who, like so many sent-down youths, simply disappeared forever. Is this imagined story a fantasy, a fear, a hodge-podge of gossip, or more propaganda? We never learn much about this narrator, so it is impossible to gauge his motives. Despite the weaknesses of Chen's movie, Xiu Xiu stands out as a real and heartfelt revolutionary tale.

2.5 Stars

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