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With: Lu Lu, Lopsang, Gao Jie, Li Qianqian, Lu Yue, Qiao Qian
Written by: Joan Chen, Geling Yan, based on a story/novel by Geling Yan
Directed by: Joan Chen
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 99
Date: 02/19/1998
IMDB

Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Little 'Girl' Lost

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joan Chen, one of our local Bay Area treasures, makes an astonishing directorial debut with Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Chen had worked as an actress before, in such productions as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), David Lynch's Twin Peaks television series (1990), and Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose (1993). Clearly she picked up some magic touch from these three directors. She also appeared in such movies as Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground (1994), and Judge Dredd (1995) with Sylvester Stallone. Those movies are worthy as well because they gave Chen the push she needed to make her own movie.

Xiu Xiu is not likely to be a huge crowd pleaser. It's the kind of movie audiences generally resist, unless the movie is nominated for Oscars. Certainly Xiu Xiu deserves multiple Oscar nominations. But it is a movie of an unpleasant nature, meant to enlighten its audiences rather than making them feel good.

The movie concerns a young girl named Xiu Xiu (played by Lu Lu) who is taken from her family in China and "sent-down" to the countryside to learn about horses. She is one of the millions of Intellectual Youth, part of the Great Cultural Revolution. She is told she will be picked up in six months and that she will teach other girls about horses and lead a cavalry unit. She is paired up with the Tibetan Lao Jin (Lopsang--one name), who has lived in the countryside for 20 years raising horses. He was once taken prisoner and castrated, and is now a gentle outcast. Lao Jin teaches Xiu Xiu for six months, and then Xiu Xiu begins to expect her ride back. But it never comes.

Instead a peddler comes along. He is aroused by the 16-year-old Xiu Xiu and promises her that he'll do what he can to get her out if she'll have sex with him. Then another man on a motorcycle comes along. Xiu Xiu begins sleeping with all the men that come to her, thinking that she'll get out. "You can't sleep with one and not sleep with another. A bowl of water must be carried evenly," she tells Lao Jin.

Chen does not show us what life is like back at Headquarters. We can sense it. We know that no one will come to pick her up. We know exactly what the peddler told the second man about Xiu Xiu and how the word was spread around. Chen spends the movie developing the complex relationship between Lao Jin and Xiu Xiu. Lao Jin is both a mother and a father figure to Xiu Xiu. (He cannot be a lover.) In one scene Xiu Xiu falls asleep with her hands on Lao Jin's gun. He carefully removes it from her without waking her. (That's no place for a young girl's hands.) In another scene he finds a nest of eggs and greedily cracks one open and eats it.

Chen is very aware of her visuals. She shows Xiu Xiu's suitors wooing her with apples (the evil temptation from the Garden of Eden). Water plays an important part as well, as a symbol of a woman's sexual desire. Xiu Xiu is fond of bathing, and must cleanse herself after each lover. Early in the movie, a young boyfriend of Xiu Xiu's calls up to her window where she is bathing above. Excited, she jumps up out of the water to see him, unafraid of being naked. In one scene, Lao Jin digs a bathtub for her on the top of a hill. As the movie progresses, water is on hand less and less until it comes to symbolize death itself. Xiu Xiu would rather bathe than drink.

On top of these little touches, Chen photographs the vast expanse of the countryside with a delicate eye. Like Bertolucci, she keeps an eye on the space and uses it as part of her story. She shows us all the different variations, from clouds to storms, to rainbows, to snow, to Spring flowers. The battered Army tent is the centerpiece to the nature.

Xiu Xiu, which was adapted by Chen and Geling Yan from Geling's short story Celestial Bath, is a great achievement. It's very much worth a trip to the movies to experience for yourself.

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