Review: Passion delayed in 'Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl'
June 15, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Paul Newman has said he thinks audiences most remember the very last sequence in a film, regardless of how good or bad things were going as the rest of the story unfolded. That's debatable, of course, but the theory seems to be holding true for actress Joan Chen's much-heralded directing debut, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl."
Chen is attempting something lyrical here, and her ambition is well worth noting. But the "Xiu Xiu" story loses momentum several times before its lead characters are brought together by a dual act of violent surrender. The film's saving grace is its fantastic ending.
Chen (who's probably best known as Josie Packard, the gorgeous inheritor of the sawmill in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" on television) shot "Xiu Xiu" in China without the cooperation of that country's government. That's a gutsy move -- when was the last time you tip-toed around a regime in the name of art? -- so the story is obviously very important to her.
Lu Lu plays Xiu, a teen-age girl who, as part of a stringently run government program in the early 1970s, is taken from her loving family and shipped to the plains to learn horse herding.
Xiu is considered one of the "educated youth." This lengthy sojourn -- called being "sent down" -- is apparently designed to put everyone in the country on an equal spiritual and philosophical footing to negate the bourgeois concept of intellectual superiority. It'll also prepare the unenthusiastic Xiu to one day lead an all-girl cavalry in government-run competitions.
Gee, what a great way to waste your life. Xiu's teacher (and only companion) on this adventure is Lao Jin (played by Lopsang), a manual laborer who's rumored to have been castrated when he was held prisoner by Tibetan rebels. Lao Jin is a man of few words, and Xiu is less than pleased to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, in one tent, with a person whom she considers to be a couple miles beneath her station.
Xiu's thinking will eventually change, of course. But the movie's trump card is that she'll go through another, more drastic transformation long after she's come to terms with her grizzled co-worker. It's a final burst of reassessment that brings the story to its tragic conclusion.
Both Lu Lu and Lopsang are effective actors, but Chen makes a huge miscalculation in telling Xiu's story. Though it looks like anything but fun, Xiu's existence under the open sky never seems to be much more than an extended Girl Scout adventure.
We see her helping Lao Jin chase down some horses in the early going, true enough, but the majority of her time is simply spent complaining about the lack of space in the tent, rather than the wear and tear that this kind of work can have on a schoolgirl's mind and body.
She might not be able to bathe in private, and she takes care of her small supply of toilet paper as if it's a family heirloom, but Xiu never looks anything less than smashing in the process.
Lao Jin is always helpful, making sure she gets fed and has an opportunity to see after her personal hygiene. After a while, you start to feel you're watching a coddled young girl be coddled once again, but to a different degree and in a different place. The only noticeable change is that there aren't enough accouterments of modern life on hand to make her completely comfortable.
Then things get ugly. Once the men who run the government agency that's in charge of Xiu's relocation realize that such a gorgeous girl is being housed nearby, virtually unprotected, she ends up being used as a sexual plaything. The first encounter -- a brutal rape that's unflinchingly photographed by Chen -- is as disturbing as anything you'll see in a movie this year. The gloss of the rest of the film gets ripped away quite quickly, but that's actually the problem.
After Xiu is violated, her thinking alters drastically, without the slightest hint of doubt or self-concern. A realistic emotional evolution is surprisingly short-changed in favor of shock tactics that pay off in the end, but don't ring true while they're taking place.
The pay-off is highly emotional; Chen just neglects to put a sturdy enough film in front of it. It's as if she was writing a poem and suddenly decided to shift gears into grand opera, blasting a memorable crescendo while failing to properly build up to it. "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" is a very promising first film, but Chen needs a little more experience before people start throwing too much praise her way.
"Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" turns pretty nasty in the third act. There's nudity, talk of castration, that awful rape, and a couple other rather one-sided "sex" scenes. Rated R. 99 minutes. (In Mandarin with English subtitles.)
Joan Chen: From China to Hollywood
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