Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1998)

Reviewed by: Mikestar*
Date: 06/02/2003
Summary: 'The Sent Down Girl'

What an impressive first time effort from 'Twin Peaks' and 'The Last Emperor' star, Joan Chen.

'Xiu Xiu' at large represents a shift within transnational Chinese productions towards innovative new directions. Unlike some recent films focussed on the Cultural Revolution (that often dwindle into self-effacement and sentimentalism), this film tends towards a mature and sensitive approach to the '10 years' of chaos in China.

The film is essentially held together by the wonderfull peformance from its lead actress (16 yr old Lu Lu), and as a director Chen herself displays considerable ability and potential. The nostalgic recreation of the 1960s & 70s is well-established throughout offset by developed charcters and an assured narrative (even if on the surface the story read a little like a Lars Von Trier film)

The film certainly doesn't appeal to all tastes, with the most extreme example being the emergence of a alternative rock group who have adapted the name 'Xiu Xiu' due to it being the 'most tragic' film they had ever seen.

Despite its sometimes laboured veneer, the film itself is an intense study of a traumatic period within Chinese history. In particular the focus on the life of this displaced and isolated teenager (teetering between adolescence and adulthood) reflects the crisis of faith within China and loss of ideals that have led to the modern reform era.

The style of the film itself is equally appealing, in particular the focus on motifs (apples, coats, baths)combined with the breathtaking (yet alienating) landscapes of rural China, highlight a future 'director in the making'. Much like her fellow actor-turned-directors (Jiang Wen, Sylvia Chang), Chen will undoubtadely develop her skill further in upcoming years. If her debut is anything to go by, there should a be great deal to look forward too.

Reviewed by: reelcool
Date: 03/01/2001
Summary: Same O, Same O

Nice effort for first time director, "Joan Chen", but lacks originality, and reeks of "Ang Lee". Yes, this is a story with all the trappings of what it is like to be human in a miserable situation. Yes, this is a film about China during the cultural revolution, and how it made a naive, beautiful, young girl's life "suck". Yes, this movie was even banned in China, and was filmed secretly under the noses of the Chinese government. Unfortunately, this is all very common for every film maker in China today. "Xui Xui" offers nothing new to the world of film, just a safe passage for a shrewd, career oriented, debut director. Why not have some "balls" and make a Science Fiction Movie in China.

Reviewed by: Paul Fonoroff
Date: 11/17/2000

There have been scores of Cultural Revolution-themed movies made in the quarter century since the arrest of the Gang of Four, but none has covered the sexual territory of Xiu Xiu. The teenaged title character heeds Chairman Mao’s call for urban youth to be “sent down” to the countryside and learn from the peasants. Xiu Xiu ends up on the plains of Tibet and learns a few lessons about politics that are more sexual than ideological. The subject matter is shocking, dealing as it does with a tumultuous era almost exclusively portrayed as chaste and celibate.

That this woman’s story is told from a “woman’s perspective” is also rare in Chinese cinema. Said viewpoint is provided by a female director, actress Joan Chen in her behind-the-camera debut, and a script based on the novel Tian Yu (“Celestial Bath”, which is also the movie’s Chinese title), by female author Yan Geling. They relate the transformation of Xiu Xiu (aptly portrayed by 16-year-old Lu Lu, who bares an uncanny resemblance to Joan Chen at the start of her own acting career in the waning years of the Cultural Revolution) from sweet and fervent youth to disillusioned, used, and abused slut. It is an extremely depressing portrait, minus any Hollywood-style sugarcoating or silver lining. An excellent performance is also provided by Tibetan actor Lopsang, in his motion picture debut, as Xiu Xiu’s devoted friend and the only vestige of humanity in her lonely life.

One wishes the director had more faith in the power of her subject matter to move the audience. Particularly in the latter half of the 100-minute running time, there is an over reliance on a melodramatic musical score and other manipulative devices to ostensibly engage the viewer. They aren’t essential, and have the opposite effect of making the proceedings seem artificial and theatrical.

The chief problem with the scenario is one of perspective. A narrator is confusingly inserted, a boy (now grown up) who had a crush on Xiu Xiu when both were classmates in their native Sichuan. We periodically hear his voice as he recounts the girl’s distressing life in Tibet, though there is no way he could have been privy to the events or thoughts he describes. Perhaps the details of Xiu Xiu’s tragedy are a product of his imagination, perhaps pieced together from stories he heard, or some combination of both. But this device seems unnecessary in a celluloid treatment of Xiu Xiu’s travails, and adds a needless layer separating the viewer from the drama unfolding on screen.

3 stars

This review is copyright (c) 2000 by Paul Fonoroff. All rights reserved. No part of the review may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Reviewer Score: 6