Stanley Kubrick once said, “If you can talk brilliantly enough about a subject you can create the consoling illusion it has been mastered.” It seems that Jenny Suen and Christopher Doyle have delivered the cinematic equivalent to this statement, choosing a girl born allergic to the sun, alienated and scorned by her community, peers, and family, as their conduit for their surfacely-sizable ideas. Though possessing a deeply fascinating premise, wonderfully atypical visuals and moments of editorial flourish, The White Girl is an overly contrived mess of threadbare plotlines, weak acting, and aimless direction.
The White Girl (Angela Yuen) lives with her father The Fisherman (Kin-Ping Leung) in a shantied fishing village of Hong Kong. Her incredibly pale skin and reported allergy to sunlight make her a social pariah among her classmates, and she is largely considered bad luck and even a walking ghost by her neighbors, leaving the child Ho Zai (Jeff Yiu) as her only friend. That is until she meets Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri) at a nearby beach. Bewitched by his outsider status, relatable aimless nature, and her mounting desire to grow up and leave the village, the White Girl finally feels like a human being. As she rebels against her father to uncover the true history of her absent mother, Ho notices a group of “tourists” from mainland China getting too chummy with the Village Chief (Michael Ning), and discovers they have nefarious motives for the fishing community.
“Her incredibly pale skin and…allergy to sunlight make her a social pariah among her classmates…”
The White Girl has a serious tonal and structural problem. Granted abrupt tonal shifts between tragic soul searching and abstract absurdist comedy with a student rapper interlude can sometimes work. But this film forgets to actually weave them together and then forgets they are there at all. It starts enjoyably strong with a mesh of varying styles and genres, alluding to a complex mystery and intense introspective journey, but it then turns into another slushy teenage angst film. The Village Chief subplot is only revisited when the main arc has ground to a halt, and only truly affects the main characters at the climax when it suddenly ends up being the deciding plotline for the whole movie.
Yuen’s performance has moments of empathetic realism, but she spends most of the film irritably stagnant. That isn’t completely her fault (nor it is completely out of place), as her character is almost completely bereft of a noticeable (or satisfying) developmental arc. Ranya Lee as the schoolteacher Miss Wong has the most memorable performance of the whole cast, her exasperated yet no-nonsense demeanor a consistent enjoyment through scenes that otherwise slog along. Also, that aforementioned rapper (Tam Si Wai) provides the most entertainingly farcical scene, and it’s worth watching the whole movie just to experience this moment.
Though this is Suen’s directorial debut, Doyle made his bones working as the cinematographer on some of the most visually fascinating films that have come out of China in the past few decades, notably Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), and Hero (2002). His and Tsoi Kubbie’s cinematography for this film is easily the most definitive element. However Odagiri and Lung Dart’s score is a clash of awesome genre-bending musical experiments that is collectively fantastic, and I want this soundtrack. However, that’s like complimenting the walls of ornate picture frames in an otherwise empty house.
“…her exasperated yet no-nonsense demeanor a consistent enjoyment…”
That is not a poor or distasteful approach outright, but the characters appear to be digging deep and searching for serious substance in their existence, and a half-hearted inspection of what they’re saying easily amounts to all bark and no bite. Just as Sakamoto describes his choice of lodgings in relation to himself, the characters’ meandering pontifications in tandem with the transfixing aesthetic amount to “a ruin” (atmospherically intriguing, but pretty damn lifeless).
There are many well-placed intentions and genre staples at play here, and it’s easy to see where the filmmakers wanted to take their offbeat introspective drama. However, The White Girl cast its net in far too shallow of water, its rewards too small and too seldom to recommend for more than a single viewing.
The White Girl (2018) Directed by Jenny Suen, Christopher Doyle. Written by Jenny Suen, Christopher Doyle. Starring Angela Yuen, Kin-Ping Leung, Jeff Yiu, Joe Odagiri.
★★½ / ☆☆☆☆☆