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One Steppe Beyond

Actress Joan Chen makes an impressive directing debut.

Joan Chen, director and co-writer of Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl, is best known as an actress: American audiences probably identify her most readily as the doomed wife in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor or as Josie Packard, the alternately evil and innocent character in David Lynch's weird-o-rama Twin Peaks. (When the show was canceled, Josie's soul was still apparently trapped in the handle of a dresser drawer. Don't ask.)

Chen, who was born and raised in Shanghai, has frequently received what might charitably be called "mixed notices" in her American films, where she has been typecast as the beautiful, sexually corrupted innocent; she's fared better in Chinese productions, such as Clara Law's Temptation of a Monk. So it may be more surprising to Americans than to Asians that Xiu Xiu, which marks Chen's debut as a director, swept last year's Golden Horse Awards (the Taiwanese equivalent of the Oscars).

The heroine of Xiu Xiu is a part that Chen herself could have played had the story come to her twenty years earlier. But since even the radiant Chen would be an unconvincing teenager at this point, Xiu Xiu is played by mainland actress LuLu, who makes her starring debut.

The film opens with a fairly lengthy exposition to give context to the action that follows. From 1967 to 1976, during the Cultural Revolution, millions of Chinese youths were "sent down" -- that is, taken away from their homes and assigned to remote corners of China for work and education. Among them is a bright-eyed, slightly spoiled teenager named Wen Xiu, known familiarly as Xiu Xiu, who enthusiastically volunteers for service, leaving behind her family and a suitor (who narrates the story) in metropolitan Chengdu.

During a seemingly happy period with her peers at a large educational camp, Xiu Xiu does so well that instead of being transferred back home, she is awarded with another assignment: She is sent off to the isolated Tibetan plains to learn horse training from Lao Jin (Lopsang), a quiet, even-tempered man of indeterminate years.

Lao Jin is considered an odd duck and a loner, even by the standards of rural Tibetan horse trainers. In fact, much of his withdrawn manner is an adjustment to a gruesome trauma: During some long-ago period of tribal warfare, he was castrated. Despite his emasculation, however, he falls in love with Xiu Xiu. At first he seems resigned to a sort of paternal relationship, but the nature of his affection is transformed with the girl's sexual awakening.

Unfortunately, that awakening is hardly a joyous one. Xiu Xiu has been led to believe that her stint with Lao Jin is to last for six months. But after six months, the authorities seem to have forgotten about her. The Cultural Revolution has ended, and the bureaucracy that brought her here has disbanded. She is, in effect, a forgotten person.

Despondent and homesick, Xiu Xiu is easy pickings for a scoundrel, and one arrives in short order, in the person of a slick-talking traveling salesman who claims to have connections that can get her back home. "The girls who have powerful family and friends have already returned," he purrs. "I also know people. Be my friend and I may be able to help you."

It's obvious what kind of friend he's looking for. In one of the film's less subtle moments, the peddler hands Xiu Xiu an apple, and she accompanies him into the tent she shares with Lao Jin, who is off somewhere with the horses. Of course, being a scoundrel, the peddler can't keep up his end of the bargain. Instead, he spreads the word among his buddies that there's this cute little babe out in the countryside who is so naive she'll sleep with anybody who says he has connections. Xiu Xiu finds herself characterized as the region's easiest mark.

Chen has said that after seeing numerous nihilistic, end-of-the-millennium stories at the Berlin Film Festival, she wanted to do a "more poetic, more hopeful" film -- hence, Xiu Xiu. Only in the context of the frequently depressing Chinese cinema of the mainland, however, could Xiu Xiu be considered hopeful. It may be a failure of aesthetic intent that the movie is so downbeat, but given the confident talent Chen displays, it is more likely a question of differing cultures. To American eyes, Xiu Xiu is no stroll on the steppes but rather a tragic, doom-drenched melodrama. In the first half, we watch the self-absorbed girl's shabby, insensitive treatment of the noble Lao Jin. In the second, we see fate's excessive revenge for her childish failings.

Chen gets deeply convincing performances from her leads, both novice actors. She also displays a good eye for the seemingly endless vistas of Tibet. (She shot there despite problems getting official approval; the Chinese government has been even more hostile to the final product, which is arguably more negative than Farewell My Concubine or The Blue Kite.) In the end, although the movie may strike viewers as simply too depressing, there can be no doubt that Chen possesses a sure and developed grasp of the medium.

 
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