Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl
A Film by Joan Chen

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, the first feature film directed by actress Joan Chen, is a remarkable effort. With a masterful integration of visual elements, narrative line, dialogue and music, Chen paints an unforgettable picture of two lost lives.

The story centers on an innocent, teen-aged, working-class schoolgirl, Wen Xiu, nicknamed Xiu Xiu, (Lu Lu) daughter of a tailor, who gets caught up in the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution. Like hundreds of thousands of her real-life counterparts, she "volunteers to serve the revolution" by being "sent down" into the countryside to build solidarity between the peasants and the workers.

She is selected from among the girls in the powdered milk factory to which she is assigned to learn how to handle horses and told that, once trained, she will be brought back to lead an all-girl cavalry unit. She is delivered to a tent in the middle of the vast Tibetan prairies, in the care of a solitary horse-herder, Lao Jin, (Lopsang) twice her age.

History moves on. Her mission is lost in the bureaucratic shuffle and the mismatched pair are largely forgotten. They seem about to sink into an idyll of pastoral companionship - except for Xiu Xiu's longing for her home and the manipulative corruption of the local government officials, which poisons their relationship and leads to a tragic ending.

The visual images are arresting and stunning. The Tibetan high plains locations are used to full effect in creating a sense of isolation and of the overwhelming power of nature. The awe-inspiring backgrounds add a surreal, timeless quality to the story. The contrasts between the dark, private inner world of the tent - and civilization - and the limitless, almost painfully beautiful vistas of the outer world - and nature - are an effective counterpoint to the story.

Xiu Xiu's last view of her family framed through the ripped canvas of a truck tarpaulin - and later recalled; her silhouette through a curtain in the tent she shares with Lao Jin - evoking the untouchable mystery she represents to him; her face covered by a sheer red scarf - the same one she wore so proudly when leaving on her adventure - as she is exploited for sex by a local official; these and many other images are details that bring the story into a heart-breakingly clear focus.

The dialogue, in a script written by Chen and Yan Geling from Yan's novel Tian Yu is as spare and subtly colored as the wide plains where the story takes place. Long sections are related only by visual images backed by traditional Chinese music and original music composed in the traditional style.The characters speak Mandarin, translated in sub-titles, and when they speak their words reflect their characters with poignant clarity.

Chen never falls into the trap of having the characters explain themselves. With a veteran director's confidence she is content to simply allow them to reveal themselves through their words and presence. She uses a voice-over narrator at the beginning and end to frame the story, but in context this rather formal and artificial device is not much of a hindrance - although the story could have stood without it.

A few key plot points - Lao Jin's humiliating and debilitating mutilation, Xiu Xiu's self-induced abortion - are revealed through exposition, but the important emotional pivots unfold naturally from the action. Chen has purposely kept the story simple - free from extraneous details - to move the highly personal history into an almost mythical realm. Kin to such classic stories of relationship as Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and The Beast, Xiu Xiuis an archetypal story of love doomed by pride, ignorance, shame and custom, redeemed by sacrifice.

Chen gets honest, compelling performances from her two lead actors. Newcomer Lu Lu projects a child-like naivtŽ and joy-in-life that makes Xiu Xiu irresistibly attractive. She captures the terrible uncertainty of adolescence, wobbling between faith and cynicism, plagued by doubt, but with irrepressible bursts of hope and confidence, with an emotional authenticity that makes her eventual fate that much more poignant.

In her encounter with the peddlar, she manages to capture a tension between longing and apprehension that is the pivot of adolescent sexuality. In the film's final scene she invests the moment with a calm dignity, courage, and a mature, trustful resignation in the face of a hopeless situation, that suddenly recasts the story and raises it to heroic proportions.

As Lao Jin, the veteran Tibetan actor Lopsang gives a nearly silent performance in which the tension of his body, the flicker of light in his eyes, the angle of his head or the slight convulsive jerking of his hands communicates eloquently. His personal competence; his respectful but never obsequious relationship to the vast natural world in which he lives; the tension between his feelings for Xiu Xiu and his stoic reserve - all are communicated wordlessly, through the actor's conviction of their reality.

Building a convincing character who is a simple, unsophisticated personality yet revealing a unique and compelling individual within that very "ordinariness" is one of the hardest tasks an actor can undertake. With the help of Chen's sensitive camerawork, wonderful support from his co-star and plenty of time and room to work, Lopsang does an admirable job.

Chen's Director of Photography, Lu Yue, is a veteran who has worked on several films with noted Chinese director Zhang Yimou, including the beautifully filmed Shanghai Triad, and Zhang's epic To Live. His mastery of his equipment is evident here, as he uses wide lenses to give an incredible depth and clarity to the landscapes and telephoto shots that seem to suspend time and make distance meaningless.

His interior photography renders the tent sometimes cozy and home-like, and at other times dark, claustrophobic and sinister. His use of extreme low light and silhouette photography is especially effective, where the audience is forced to rely on body posture and movement or half-perceived flickers of expression to make an inference about a character.

The music - adapted and/or composed by Taiwanese Johnny Chen (Xiu Chung) - captures the melancholy yearning that is so much a part of the characters' lives and of the land in which they find themselves. It underscores and heightens the impact of the visuals, but doesn't compete for attention with them. It provides brief transitional breaks of beauty and peace that offer relief to the downward spiral of the narrative line.

Chen had to overcome many obstacles to make this film. The actors and crew come out of the Mainland Chinese film industry, but because of the political and sexual content of the film she could not get permits. She had to film on the fly, and choose locations where she would not be disturbed or reported by the locals.

She had to ship the film out of China for processing for fear it would be confiscated if the Chinese censors viewed it and had to forgo seeing the footage she had shot until filming was completed. When editing was completed, the film was refused distribution in China. Chen was heavily fined for filming without a permit, and her permission to work in film was suspended for a year.

But she persisted and made the movie she wanted to make, true to her experience as a Chinese woman coming of age during the period the film describes. It went on to win wide international acclaim including top prizes at several American and European film festivals and seven Golden Horse Awards from the Taipei Academy - the Taiwanese equivalent of the Academy Awards.

For Chen, who was born and raised in Singapore but now makes her home in San Francisco, Xiu Xiu represents a move from a successful acting career into the world of film-making, for which she trained at Cal State Northridge in the early 80s. Judging by this ambitious and accomplished debut, we have much to look forward to from her.

"Directing let me discover the versatility of film language," Chen has said. "You can use realism or poetry; the language can be symbolic or abstract. It can be as detailed as the pores on your skin, or wide as the horizon." She has masterfully harnessed the vocabulary of that language to tell her story with emotional honesty and compassion. With skill worthy of a seasoned director, she has blended the elements to create a film that is powerfully moving and memorable.

That's my take on it. What's yours?