Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, actress Joan Chen’s directorial debut, is a restrained and heartfelt work about the tenacity of youthful dreams and the finality of their demise.
Near the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s "Educated Youth" were exiled from their city homes and forced to spend six months in the country learning rural trades. Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu), a young girl from Chengdu, is separated from her family and "sent down" to the steppes in remote western China, where she is assigned to learn horse herding from Lao Jin (Lopsang), a solitary Tibetan herder. Lao Jin, who was emasculated in battle as a young man, now leads the nomadic life of an outsider, moving his motley tent about the steppes as the seasons and weather dictate. (When Xiu Xiu asks him if he is going to spend his life raising horses, he quietly replies, "They raise me, too.") Xiu Xiu is initially dismayed at the prospect of sharing the herder’s impoverished life, but she slowly comes to appreciate her time with him, treating it as a summer idyll that will soon come to an end.
But the government has lied to Xiu Xiu: not only will she never lead the all-female cavalry that has been promised to her (indeed, the cavalry has long since been disbanded), but no one even comes to retrieve her at the appointed time. Eventually she is reduced to sustaining hope in the only way available to her, by having sex with the stray merchants and bureaucrats who pass through the area and who callously promise to arrange her return home.
Lao Jin is emotionally incapable of interceding as he witnesses Xiu Xiu’s transformation from a precocious schoolgirl in pigtails to a young woman who, naked beneath an army greatcoat, moves in a trance-like state about his tent. He expresses his love for her in the only way he can, through simple rituals such as drawing her bath after she has had sex or by holding a mirror as she grooms herself. Only at the end does Xiu Xiu allow him to express his deepest feelings for her, and then only in the most ironic of ways.
Xiu Xiu is superficially reminiscent of the Neo-Realist classics in its depiction of humanity ground under by an unfeeling system, but ultimately the film’s indictment of Chinese Communism is a glancing one. The system is responsible for putting Xiu Xiu into her situation, but once she is there it is her own naivete and desperation that lead her into a downward spiral. Communism, far from the infinitely meddlesome Big Brother we are used to seeing in movies, is portrayed in Xiu Xiu as an absentee parent that makes mindless decisions on behalf of its children and then abandons them to the consequences.
In fact, the film itself is like a distanced, icy parent. One wishes that the body of the movie contained more of the absorbing detail that infuses the scenes of Xiu Xiu’s pre-exile life with her family. One scene in particular, in which her mother disguises her grief over the impending separation with a seemingly casual speech about hygiene, is perfectly observed and acted. But the film grows progressively more studied, and by the end it seems to consist of nothing but redundant landscapes and close-ups of a distraught Lao Jin. Chen’s uncertainty about how the action should be filled out also may explain why the film abandons its narrator (a classmate who loves Xiu Xiu) before he has served any real purpose.
Chen and director of photography Lu Yue achieve some startlingly fresh images – such as the view of a search party’s flashlights wandering like fireflies in the black of night – and Chen knows not to linger on them too long. Only towards the film’s end, when wintry landscapes are made to substitute for characterization too many times, do the effects become merely pictorial.
Xiu Xiu is a film about the distances that separate us from our youth, from each other, and from a true understanding of our place in the world – distances that are mirrored in the vastness of the Chinese steppes. It is a sincere and handsome film, but the early sparks of life it fans never burst into a real flame.
– Tom Block