Three films by Xie Fei (1942-) and why.
Xie Fei: the leading voice of the long-forgotten “Fourth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers. These three selected films represent the general theme of Xie’s filmmaking: an individual’s fateful sorrow and powerlessness when facing either a repressive culture and society. Xie Fei now teaches at the Beijing Film Academy and frequently serves on film festival juries worldwide.
A Girl from Hunan (Xiang nü xiao xiao) (1986)
Based on a story by Shen Congwen, a veteran Chinese writer whose works are famed for their subtle critique of both Chinese tradition and modernity, A Girl from Hunan tells the story of a young girl’s arranged marriage in the 1920s with a two-year-old child and her predetermined tragic life that followed. Beneath the tranquil surface of a pastoral lifestyle lies the filmmaker’s passionate voice that speaks against a culture that victimizes the girl and at the same time turns the victimized into a victimizer. The cruel nature of local tradition is calmly revealed and subtly scrutinized in scenes where an unchaste widow is stripped naked and marched as a spectacle before being drowned, and where the child bride Xiaoxiao, the girl from Hunan, swallows a handful of incense ash in hopes of getting rid of her illegitimate baby. The movie is among the first group of works that led Chinese cinema out of the dark shadow of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
What makes Xie Fei’s critique of the child bride tradition unique lies not in his outright call for a change, but in the fact that Xiaoxiao, a few years after her own son was born, continues this tradition by taking a child bride home. History repeats itself as we watch Xiaoxiao, in high spirit, getting ready for her little son’s wedding.
A Girl from Hunan sets the tone in both style and subject matter for Xie Fei’s later works. With the exception of Black Snow, Xie Fei’s films are all set in the periphery of China, and all of them are concerned with the fate of women. While the beautiful landscape of Tibet, Mongolia, Hunan, and the lake-surrounded village propels Xie to shoot his scenes in a more measured pace and to move his camera in a more tranquil and smooth manner, thus making his films exquisitely poetic, it cannot be denied that, underneath the pastoral scenery, the recurring theme of human beings’ futile struggle with fate runs through all his films.
Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls (Xiang hun nü) (1993)
A Berlin Golden Bear winner, Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls tells the story of a no-nonsense woman sesame oil maker in contemporary China who is very much in control of both the private and public domains of the household. While the success of the sesame oil-making business presents the viewer a strong female figure in China’s economic boom, the sesame woman nevertheless is vulnerable when her lazy and abusive husband forces himself on her. What pains her most is her epileptic son, and the movie is also about the sesame woman’s well-executed plan to find a love match for her mentally-challenged son and the tragedy it brings to a local girl.
Throughout the film, one question remains unsettled: why does the sesame woman, who confesses one time that she was sold when little and wanted to throw herself into the lake (the very lake out of which the home-grown sesame oil is made) when forced to marry, have little remorse in flexing her newly gained economic muscle and forces the poor girl to repeat what she has endured? Is that due to the sesame woman’s selfishness? Is that because the director wants to make a statement about the growing gap between rich and poor in the reform period? Or, to paraphrase a lyric in the film, is it due to the fact that “a girl can’t escape the cruel fate”?
Probably being unsettling is exactly what the director is striving for. Xie’s nuanced observation of human nature is on full display in Women from the Lake of Scented Souls. He refuses to depict the sesame woman in an easily discernible black-and-white manner. Here we can probably see the close relation between A Girl from Hunan and Women from the Lake of Scented Souls: Xiaoxiao can be viewed as a mirror image of the sesame woman. Whereas Xiaoxiao’s forced marriage and her sexual encounter with Hua Gou (the man who gets Xiaoxiao pregnant and runs away from her) allude to the youthful days of the sesame woman, something that is visually absent in Lake of Scented Souls, the sesame woman is a metamorphosed and grown-up Xiaoxiao who, while aware of her own sorrowful days when young, nevertheless continues to force other young girls to follow her steps. Maybe this is the most tragic moment of all: you know there is a trap in front of you, yet you think it is your destiny to step on it.
Despite his marked interest in exploring female subjectivity in dire situations, Xie Fei is by no means a feminist in the western sense. His take on women’s plight in either 1930s or 1990s China is by and large a natural extension of his humanism, an outcry for respecting every individual’s dignity and nature, including his/her sexual desire. In this sense, Xie is a classicist, not a modernist. The line he quotes from Shen Congwen in the opening of A Girl from Hunan, “I only built a Greek Temple, in which humanity is worshipped,” probably also speaks for him.
Black Snow (Ben ming nian) (1990)
Edgy and restless, Black Snow, a Berlin Silver Bear winner, follows a troubled Beijing youth and records the sound bites of the big city at the juncture of an earthshaking rebellion: the 1989 nationwide student movement of China. After three years in prison for his involvement in gang-fighting in the back alleys of Beijing, Li Huiquan (Jiang Wen) comes out to find that he is very much left on his own in the rapidly-changing city with no friends and no immediate family members to depend on. While trying to re-integrate himself into society, Li also finds it almost impossible to lead a normal life. Featuring a youthful Jiang Wen, who has recently joined the so-called “100-million yuan Box-Office Club of China” with his critically acclaimed blockbuster Let the Bullet Fly, Black Snow is the only movie that deviates from the lyrical style of Xie Fei, the leading voice of the “Fourth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers.