Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Certain historical periods provide rich and varied soil for the cultivation of motion picture storylines. The twilight of the Roman Empire is one. The American Civil War is another. World War II marks a third. And a fourth is the Chinese "Cultural Revolution," which spanned roughly a decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. This time of great upheaval, which was started by young ideologues forcing their harsh political views on the entire populace, led to frightened men and women denouncing others to save themselves. The events of those ten years have given rise to a number of stirring, powerful motion pictures, including Farewell My Concubine and To Live. Now, Xiu Xiu can be added to that list. This is a devastating and unforgettable portrait of hopeless love and the corruption of innocence set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution.

The director of Xiu Xiu is Chinese-born actress Joan Chen, who established herself in the West with a key role in The Last Emperor and a recurring part in David Lynch's offbeat TV series, "Twin Peaks." Chen wears many hats for this motion picture, which is obviously a labor of passion. In addition to making her directorial debut, she functions as co-producer and co-writer. The result is one of the most stunning first features from any film maker since Quentin Tarantino burst upon the scene with Reservoir Dogs.

The movie takes place in mainland China near the city of Chengdu during the mid-1970s. A fifteen year-old girl, Wen Xiu (nicknamed Xiu Xiu, and played by Lu Lu), is joining the core of youths who are sent into the country to be properly "educated" (through hard labor) in service to their country. After an exemplary record on her first assignment, Wen is transferred to the Tibetan borderlands to study under the tutelage of Lao Jin (Lopsang), a master horse herder. She is supposed to be there for six months. Lao proves to be a gentle man who is at home with animals and nature, but uncomfortable around humans. Gradually, he develops a deep affection for the girl under his care, and, because he is unable to function sexually, there is no danger that the relationship will become inappropriate.

The months pass, with Wen Xiu and Lao Jin living in easy communion, but she makes no secret of the fact that when her tour of duty is up, she intends to return home to Chengdu. To her, life in isolation is worse than death – it is endurable only for a short time. But six months pass and she is not recalled. Shortly thereafter, a peddler from the city visits Lao Jin and hints that, in return for sexual favors, he might be able to pull a few strings to get Wen Xiu home. He becomes the first of many male visitors to share her bed. All promise results; none are able to deliver them. And, through all of this, Lao Jin must sit by and watch. He knows that none of the men are sincere, but Wen Xiu is so blinded by her desire to leave that she cannot see what is obvious: she has become a whore, and is being paid with worthless promises.

As its foundation, Xiu Xiu has the bedrock of two superbly-rendered, multidimensional characters. When the film opens, Wen Xui is an artless, optimistic young girl who faces the future with strength and courage. She is shy and sexually inexperienced, and refuses to undress in a situation where Lao Jin might catch her naked. By the time the closing credits roll, the hardships of her ordeal to return home have transformed her into a self-centered manipulator who uses sex as both a tool (to bribe men) and a weapon (to taunt Lao Jin). The tragedy is that she's still naïve enough (or perhaps desperate enough) not to realize that she is being used. 16 year-old actress Lu Lu gives an incredible performance as Wen Xiu, capturing the nuances of a role that demands great range. In her capable hands, Wen Xiu becomes a character we can sympathize with and cry for, yet, at the same time, despise her for what she is doing to Lao Jin. It is our ambiguity about Wen Xiu that fuels Xiu Xiu's extraordinary power.

Lao Jin is no less interesting, although our feelings about him are more clear-cut. He is a calm, self-assured man who loses himself completely to the girl who comes to live with him. Because of his inability to function sexually, his feelings for Wen Xiu come across as almost paternal, although it's clear that they run much deeper. He sees himself as her protector, although, because of an innate impotence (probably an extension of his sexual dysfunction), he is unable to save her from the human predators who stalk her. Nevertheless, even after it is clear what she has become, he persists in safeguarding the illusion of her innocence, although the reality of it has long since been lost. Only at the end are his eyes finally opened. Lopsang, the actor who essays this part, manages the difficult task of showing the complex web of pain, love, and frustration lurking beneath Lao Jin's seemingly-implacable exterior. It is a moving and subtle performance.

Xiu Xiu is a film with few flaws. Not only are the protagonists effectively written and expertly portrayed, but the story constantly moves forward, projecting Wen Xiu and Lao Jin along well-defined character arcs. (Despite an epic feel, the film does not have a bloated running length – it clocks in at a crisp 100 minutes.) The cinematography, which captures spectacular views of the countryside as well as impressive shots of approaching thunderstorms, serves to enhance Xiu Xiu's potent atmosphere. We see both the lonely desolation that is Wen Xiu's perspective of the borderlands as well as the comfortable solitude that is Lao Jin's.

Xiu Xiu will never be shown in Communist China. The film's condemnation of the Cultural Revolution is overt. Although it only explicitly depicts the downfall of one girl, it hints at a widespread corruption that is terrible to contemplate. Unlike movies such as Farewell My Concubine and To Live, Xiu Xiu is not a product of the Chinese film industry, so there is no danger of it being suppressed. The movie, which is currently making its rounds through the film festival circuit, will eventually achieve a limited distribution in North American theaters (Stratosphere plans a May 1999 release). Those who wish to seek it out will then be able to do so. And anyone who puts forth the effort to locate Xiu Xiu will be rewarded with the kind of forceful, emotionally-riveting experience that only the most accomplished motion pictures can offer.

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (United States, 1998)

Director: Joan Chen
Cast: Lu Lu, Lopsang
Screenplay: Joan Chen, Yan Geling from her novella "Tian Yu"
Cinematography: Yue Lu
Music: Johnny Chen
U.S. Distributor: Stratosphere Films
Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1999-05-07
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Mandarin Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1