You think YOUR life is tough? Try being a Chinese teenager during the days of our ol’ pal Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Baby sitting the neighbor’s screaming toddlers on a Saturday night probably ain’t a picnic, but it’s gotta be a hell of a lot easier than herding horses and living in a leaky tent on the storm-swept steppes of rural China. Yet, that’s precisely the fate that’s befallen the waif-like Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu) in first time director Joan Chen’s moving and melancholy “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.”
Xiu Xiu (pronounced “show-show”) naively volunteers for Mao’s youth re-education program; a draconian cultural leveling device which “sent down” urban Chinese teens to the countryside. Thus safely scattered, the youths are assigned menial tasks and, not incidentally, indoctrinated early on to a life under central control.
After a monotonous year of milking cows at Headquarters, the local head Comrade hands Xiu Xiu over to Lao Jin (Lopsang), a gruff and foreboding Mongolian horse herder who, rumor has it, had his, er, “Manhood” forcibly removed in a POW camp. The young pixie and her taciturn companion quickly form an unlikely, yet ever-deepening and more complex bond… at least until her six month tenure comes and goes with no permission to return to the city.
Increasingly desperate to return home, Xiu Xiu gullibly sleeps with a passing trader who promises her he can deliver the necessary return documents. Quicker than you can say “mailing list,” a string of “connected” callers begins beating a path to Xiu Xiu’s remote tent while the lovesick, silently suffering Lao Jin percolates to a boil. The surprising conclusion, while not quite on a par with “Romeo and Juliet,” is nonetheless as powerful and disturbing as it is perhaps logically inevitable.
Chen, who’s appeared in “The Last Emperor” and “Twin Peaks,” languishes in the middle longer than a pensioner in a bread line; along with Xiu Xiu’s too-sudden temporary transformation into a shrew-like hussy, the film’s only major flaws. Nonetheless, she’s forged a highly intimate, unspoken love story set amidst the kinds of sweeping, beautifully desolate landscapes where epics usually dwell.
It’s an odd juxtaposition that serves to drive this film. We wonder if the oblivious young girl, stuck inside a tent as lonely as it is homey, set amongst rolling hills as isolating as they are comforting, will ever become aware of her stoic suitor’s feelings.
Banned in China – no surprise there, as this unusual film is hardly a sympathetic portrayal of life under Communist rule – “Xiu Xiu” is a beautifully photographed, emotionally-charged tale of unfailing love and silent, unselfish devotion.