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53rd London Film Festival: "She, a Chinese" (Guo Xiaolu, UK)

Guo Xiaolu’s first narrative feature is, ostensibly, a portrait of a youth’s (Huang Lu) rites-of-passage in today’s alienating, globalised world. It unravels over three stages. First at her family’s rural home, bucking an arranged marriage. Then in a steady-but-dull job at a Chongqing hair salon, fleeing with a dead lover’s savings. And finally in the big smoke of London, joining the ranks of its sans-papière underclass. As if these dramatic permutations weren’t challenging enough for its ambitions, questions of ethnic identity, citizenship, and cultural difference are also thrown in for good measure. Although ambition is never a problem in itself, the film, however, proves too lightweight or amateurish – not to be confused with low budget – to tackle issues it itself raises with any genuine seriousness.

She, a Chinese is predictable thematic terrain for Guo, as those aware of her pop-whimsy novels (A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, or 20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth) will no doubt recognise. And her transition from literature to cinema reveals a real struggle to adapt. ‘As a filmmaker,’ Derek Elley rightly notes, ‘she still has plenty to prove, Locarno's Golden Leopard victory notwithstanding.’ Yet, those unacquainted with her writing will soon suspect the same. With irritating frequency, the film punctuates itself with captions and maxims, each announcing incoming “subtexts” like a didact prejudiced against subtlety. Suffering most from this struggle, however, is its photography – consistently drab and uninventive. Even a slow-motion panorama of Maritime Greenwich – one of London’s more picturesque World Heritage sites – is made to look hoary: a result of sloppiness rather than aestheticisation.

Like her novels, again, we are voyeuristically immersed in adolescent experience. And with Lin-Mei, there is angst-ridden ponderousness to spare. Perhaps the successes of this portrayal can only be gauged subjectively, as it will probably appeal to identity-searching emo-teens addicted to Facebook. That Lin-Mei is as impudent as she is hard done by, however, remains discernable from any position. And it’s here claims that She, a Chinese might provide any social realist worth crumbles. Recalling how diametrical She, a Chinese is in comparison to truly socially and personally engaged works like, say, the Dardennes’ Rosetta, or Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (of which Huang also played the lead) illustrates this best. The chasm between both camps resides in how courage is depicted. The former examples renounce even the slightest self-pity in adversity. Guo’s works, however, insists in its revelry.

But what makes Guo’s broader vision so bizarre is her blend of contradiction and delusion. She states in her publicity pack: ‘As a mainland Chinese filmmaker, I think world cinema needs to move away from its focus on specific cultural identities – to go further, and to do something broader and wilder.’ Her acultural plans for cinema is not merely undone by belabouring her own – specifically mainland Chinese – cultural identity in one breath, it inadvertently forms a profoundly confused manifesto for her creativity in general. And it is one formally delighting in the play of cultural difference, safeguarded by caricature and cliché. For example, on receiving a cheque in her first UK job, Lin-Mei reacts in bewilderment: “what this?” as if channelling Kubrick’s ape-monolith encounter. Only before her employer proceeds to slow, down, her, speech, to school her on the first-world's concept of bank accounts. Another: after noticing her English husband’s (convenience marriage, of course) dead cat during a mawkish back-garden burial, she un-ironically serves it to her Muslim-Indian lover, an East/West row about Halal ethics ensues. I could go on but…

That Lin-Mei is intended as an allegorical figure of contemporary China entering the evermore-globalised world should not come as a surprise. What does shock, however, is the manner of Guo’s U-turn on “anti-exoticism” in accounting for the film’s ambiguous conclusion:  ‘The open ending of the film which Mei walks by the seaside presents an unknown future of new China – risky, mysterious, and provocative.’ These words like the film are enough to make even Amy Tan blush.

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