Starring: Lu Lu, Lopsang
Rated R for Strong Sexual Content
China's Cultural Revolution, or The Great Leap Forward, is one of many eras of history that is ripe with dramatic possibilities. True or not, there are many films waiting to be told about that era in Asian history. Most likely due to skittishness about casting a film without a white actor in it, Hollywood has shied away from it. Those who are interested in the period are forced to turn to China itself in telling these stories. There are a few, such as "Farewell, My Concubine," "The Red Violin" (which is Canadian, but never mind) and "Coming Home." Add Joan Chen's "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" to that list.
Wen Xiu (Lu Lu), or Xiu Xiu, as she is known, is a young 15 year old girl living in the city of Chengdu. Like many girls her age (that don't have money or connections to get out of it), she is sent away to begin work training. She's studying raising horses with Lao Jin (Lopsang), a simple horse herder. In six months, she will be recalled to lead a cavalry. However, six months pass, and no one comes. Occasionally, men do come to pass, promising a good word on her behalf if Xiu Xiu does "certain things" for them. But is there really a chance that Xiu Xiu will get to go home, or is Lao Jin correct in his view: that she has become a whore in exchange for empty promises?
This is a two character piece, although it's narrated at the beginning and the end by Xiu Xiu's love interest from home, Li Chuanbei (Zheng Qian). The acting by Lu Lu and Lopsang is exceptional. Both have demanding roles: Lu Lu has to show us a girl who can be manipulative and calculating while still making sure that we understand that she's a desperate girl who doesn't realize, or is willingly blind to, the fact that she's being used. It's an incredible performance. Her co-star, Lopsang, has the more challenging role. Lao Jin must watch this naïve young girl degrade herself for a hope that is really a cruel disposal of his deep love for her. Lao Jin's feelings for her are strictly non-sexual; he was castrated in a previous war, which has rendered him sexually and physically impotent. By his nature, Lao Jin is a quiet, solitary man, so Lopsang has to use body language (especially his eyes) to show his true pain. It's extraordinary work.
The film was directed by Joan Chen, one of China's premiere actresses. It was her first time behind a camera, and her passion is evident in every frame. She co-wrote the script with Geling Yan, whose novel "Tian Yu" served as the basis for this film, and co-produced it. It's not a movie that had many aspirations in breaking box office records, but nevertheless, her heart is visible in every frame. This is a story that she wanted to tell, and she does so beautifully. The character arcs for both Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin are well handled (I'd argue that she could have taken more time and pushed it farther, but never mind), and she has an eye for landscapes. Some of the visuals of the Chinese countryside are breathtaking.
"Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" was marketed as being banned in China for political and sexual themes. That isn't true. In fact, the script was approved by the Chinese government, but it was banned after the production team filmed in Tibet without permits (such things are illegal, I guess). Still, it's an easy mistake to make, since the film does little to hide its criticism of the communist government in 1975. It's shown to be careless and unfeeling. Had it been better organized, what happens to Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin would never have happened.
Unfortunately, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" has gone out of print. DVD copies are rare, and Netflix doesn't even offer it (it's not available to "save" for when it becomes available, so I'm guessing that there are no plans to put out more copies). It's a shame, because this movie deserves to be seen. It's not for everyone, but it's not a movie you'll soon forget.