Banned in China, Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu Horrifies

Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl , from a screenplay by Yan Geling and Ms. Chen, from the original story “Celestial Bath” (“Tian Yu”) by Ms. Geling, has reportedly displeased the Chinese authorities in Beijing, and no wonder. Xiu Xiu is the most devastatingly implacable indictment of Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution asis possibleto imagine. And yet it has been dismissed in some authenticity-seeking circles in the West for itsallegedHollywood glibness and slickness. It is certainly a very pretty film to look at from beginningtoend. The color is ravishing, and the landscapes and skyscapes lend the very laconic narrative a fashionably cosmic gloss.

The year is 1975 and the Great Cultural Revolution is in its last days of wrenchingmiddle-class young people out of the cities and into the countryside for re-educationinthe mold of the original Communist peasant revolution. Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu), the daughter of a tailor, is being separated from her family, friends and worshipful boyfriend to be “sent down” to an emptyTibetan plateau to learn about keeping horses for a supposed young woman’s military cavalry unit that has long since been disbanded. Unknowingly, she is being consigned to complete abandonment by corrupt officials who are simply going through the Maoist motions to curry favor with their superiors.

Xiu Xiu is placed in the care of a compassionate and reclusive Tibetan herder, Lao Jin (Lopsang), who is widely known in the area to have been brutally castrated by enemy soldiers. He takes pity upon Xiu Xiu because no one is ever going to come to take her back to her family. He tends to her needs with the combined devotion of a surrogate parent and a platonic lover, but she is too consumed by loneliness, homesickness and self-pity to appreciate his exertions. Indeed, she shows no sign of growing into a self-sufficient feminist-ideal superwoman. She remains a scared, somewhat spoiled, petit bourgeois young woman engulfed in an ideological nightmare. Suffering does not strengthen her; it corrupts her. She sleeps with every passing peddler and opportunist who assures her that he has connections with the central authorities. Lao Jin is powerless to protect her, and is reluctant to disabuse her of her last forlorn hope to barter her body for freedom.

The ending is brutal and tragic and transcendent in an unexpectedly lyrical burst of decisiveness. We are surprised because we have been lulled into complacency by our expectations of something more girlishly gentle and conventionally life-affirming. What we do not expect is the lingering aftereffect of horror on our political consciousness. Precisely because we are not dealing with a transfigured heroine and saint, but with a little girl and young woman very much like us, comfortable and complacent in our bourgeois cocoons until the demons of totalitarianism of both the left and the right, the great scourges of our century, swoop down on us with misguided zeal and idealism. Xiu Xiu is just one seemingly insignificant person, but the moral power of her story should make tyrants tremble.

Eternity and a Day It Is

Theo Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day , from a screenplay by Mr. Angelopoulos in collaboration with Tonino Guerra and Petros Markaris, was the 1998 Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or winner and was Greece’s original entry for the 1998 Academy Awards. One would think that as a Greek-American I would be the last person to rain on Mr. Angelopoulos’ parade of international awards throughout his almost 30-year-career. Perhaps it is because Greek is a language I spoke and understood even before English, and thus there is an element of demystification involved for me with Greek-language films such as I do not experience with any other foreign-language cinema, even the French, which I have read and studied forever and am still not fluent in, either in speaking or understanding.

Ah, but we all know that film itself is an international language that we can all understand, especially at film festivals. Or can we? And is it for better or worse that we sometimes can’t? That is the question Virginia Woolf asked when the English-speaking world first went gaga over the great Russian novelists of the late 19th and early 20th century. There is still no final answer.

My reservations about the Angelopoulos oeuvre go back almost to the beginning of his career, and I have somehow never lost my lack of enthusiasm even when an Angelopoulos champion like the French critic Michel Ciment nudges me for my alleged philistinism in not appreciating my fellow Hellene. Actually, I respect Mr. Angelopoulos for his seriousness of purpose and his emotional and ideological sincerity. His cinema is full of stunning compositions and evocative images. Eternity and a Day is no less rich than his previous works in the visual coups with found conjunctions of the real and the surreal that bring festival audiences to their feet with loud bravos. The fact that he has enjoyed little commercial distribution on the American art-house circuit only enhances his reputation abroad. If only he weren’t so damned slow. There, I’ve said it. Mr. Ciment can now bury me in cement.

I must add, however, in my own defense, that I do not object to the alleged “slowness” in Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Max Ophuls and Kenji Mizoguchi. With Mr. Angelopoulos, however, I find the slowness accompanied by pretentiousness, lack of narrative development, studied posing of images until they lose any trace of kinetic vibrancy and general artistic self-indulgence. His films are often too long for what they manage to say.

I admire Bruno Ganz, the star of Eternity and a Day , as much as anyone else, and he breathes his marvelously self-absorbed ironies into every foot of film he occupies. As a writer dying of cancer, and reliving his life in his mind on the last day of his existence before the tomorrow of eternity, Mr. Ganz’s Alexandre takes us along with him on his journey until we begin to realize that his story will never be satisfactorily resolved because Mr. Angelopoulos cannot settle on a formal expression of his own morality.

There are moments here and there with potentially eloquent points of departure, but they dissolve in the mists of the director’s ultimately aimless estheticism.

A Second Chance to Break Up

Maria Ripoll’s Twice Upon a Yesterday (a.k.a. The Man With Rain in His Shoes ), from a screenplay by Rafa Russo, follows the recent trail of second-chance parallel-universe romances ( Sliding Doors , Next Stop Wonderland et al.,) with a particularly risky piece of Spanish-conceived, English-spoken whimsy that takes magic realism into foggyLondonTown,andmanages nonetheless to make a moving statement about love and commitment that has less to do with natural selection and the elective affinities than with the irrevocable consequences of life’s fateful choices. To put it another way, Twice Upon a Yesterday is a love story with a conscience.

The movie begins unpromisingly with an annoyingly whiny and aggressively unkempt lover named Victor (Douglas Henshall) pestering his ex-girlfriend Sylvia (Lena Headey) to walk out on her forthcoming marriage to Dave (Mark Strong). When Sylvia refuses, Victor tells his troubles to a mesmerizing red-haired bartender named Diane (Elizabeth McGovern) in a bar with a mysterious pianist (Dave Fishley) who seems hypersensitive enough to the emotional vibrations around him to supply karma for 10 Dooley Wilsons in Casablanca (1942).

It seems that Victor, an actor, had betrayed Sylvia with an actress in his company, and had then made the mistake of confessing his infidelity. Sylvia promptly left him and took up with Dave, whom we still haven’t met. This sort of out-of-sequence storytelling leaves us somewhat disoriented at first, particularly when Victor drunkenly hits the street right smack into Carnival time in Rio while still in London, the final cue for the film’s leap into magic realism via the words of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) in Don Quixote . Two garbagemen named Don Miguel (Eusebio Lázaro) and Rafael (Gustavo Salmerón) magically materialize in a garbage truck in which Victor seeks to bury his useless carcass. Instead, the two emissaries from the land of second chances cast a spell so that Victorcanreturn once more to yesterday before he confessed to Sylvia.

Victor takes full advantageofhis second chance first by notconfessing to Sylvia, andsecondby breaking up with the actress, the first step in a reformation project that Victorfeels will makehimtrulyworthyof Sylvia’s love. Suddenly, he is no longerunkempt andfree-spirited. Ironically, Sylvianoticesthe abrupt change and is less than enchanted. She misses Victor’s wild unpredictability and begins to get bored. When Dave suddenlyappearson the scene, the magically prescient Victor does everything in his power to keep Sylvia from meeting him, but to no avail. She takes up with Dave again, not because Victor has betrayed her, but in a weird way, because he hasn’t.

History has repeated itself, but with a different rationale. This is not the last turn of the screw, however. Victor then falls in love with Louise (Penélope Cruz), who works in a bookshop, while Sylvia falls out of love with Dave after marrying him. Victor becomes a successful soap opera actor, and he and Louise and Sylvia have one final confrontation that leaves everyone a little sadder and wiser and still hopeful. Like the movie itself, an unusually pleasant surprise.