No Way Out – Rediscovering ‘Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl’ / ‘Tian yu’ (China 1998 – 99 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - February 16, 2015
No Way Out – Rediscovering ‘Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl’ / ‘Tian yu’ (China 1998 – 99 mins)

The compelling and moving Chinese drama ‘Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl’, is a beautifully told tale that manages to both stir and enrage you, while still being able to show numerous touching moments in between the harshness of the story.

It’s 1975 during the Cultural Revolution in China. After being sent away from home to a faraway part of Sichuan for manual work, teenager Xiu Xiu (Xiaolu Li) has to endure the loneliness and isolation of the remote countryside. Some time later she is sent to help a Tibetan herdsman; Lao Jin (Lopsang) with his horses, but it’s not long before corrupt government officials show up, and begin sexually abusing the naïve girl. Feeling worthless and homesick, and with no sign of help in returning home, Xiu Xiu turns to the trusted Lao Jin to help get her out of her increasingly fraught situation, leading to one desperate final act.

A big award winner at numerous international festivals, ‘Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl’ is impressive for featuring unknown actors and a debut direction from a high-profile actress.

Making a remarkable debut; 17 year old Xiaolu Li is perfect as Xiu Xiu, beautifully conveying sadness and vulnerability as a tired teen lost in the adult world around her. Also excellent is Lopsang, who manages to make the nomadic Lao Jin one of the more humane characters in the movie. The film was beautifully directed by actress Joan Chen, who managed to handle the controversial subject matter with much sensitivity. Chen was a well-known actress at the time, having found success with pictures such as ‘Tai-Pan’ (’86), ‘The Last Emperor’ (’87), and Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama ‘Heaven & Earth’ (’93), and here showed that she could turn to directing hard-hitting fare when given the right material.

The movie is one that is hard to forget, especially due to the powerful finale, where Lao Jin performs what he sees as a final act of kindness. The scene is both shocking and quite unexpected but, on reflection, is rather fitting to the despair of Xiu Xiu’s despondent teenager.

The superb cinematography was by the acclaimed Yue Lü, who had earlier photographed Yimou Zhang’s masterful epic ‘To Live’ (’94). The Tibetan snowy landscape is gorgeous and provides a beautiful backdrop to the increasingly bleak story. The movie is based on the novel “Tian Yu” by Gelin Yan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Chen. Johnny Chen’s haunting music score deserves the highest of praise. Its slow building orchestration is unforgettable, particularly during the film’s heart-rending climax.

A desperately sad movie, ‘Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl’ is an affecting and tragic human drama, and remains one of my favourite films to emerge from China. Simply put, it’s a stunner!

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