To the editors:
In his film review of Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, published on August 6 in the Reader [Critic's Choice], Jonathan Rosenbaum praised the film as "impressive" but said it "enraged mainland Chinese government officials" because of its "dark portrait" of the Cultural Revolution. Out of curiosity, I went to see the film, which was directed by Joan Chen based on a story by Yan Geling. Chen gained fame in America through her roles in the Hollywood productions Tai-Pan and The Last Emperor. Xiu Xiu is her directorial debut and in interviews Chen has said it "reflects her proletarian past. It aims at telling a meaningful story and appealing to audiences with different perspectives on cultures and ideas."
Like Joan Chen, I also grew up during the Cultural Revolution, although I was 11 years old while she was 5 in 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began. I was one of the millions of sent-down youth and spent five years in a village growing vegetables with peasants while Joan Chen was an actress chosen to perform for the Shanghai film studio. After watching Xiu Xiu, I was disturbed, offended, and humiliated. Even though the film was artistically well-done, the message it sends to American audiences (it is banned in China) is misleading and reinforces stereotypes of Asian women.
Xiu Xiu, the protagonist in the film, is one of the millions of children sent to remote areas of China to be "reeducated." The film begins with familiar scenes of Xiu Xiu doing exercises with other high school students and saying good-bye to her parents as she leaves for a horse farm on the border of Szechwan and Tibet. The tragedy of Xiu Xiu begins when she is later sent to learn to train horses with a Tibetan man and is forgotten by officials of the farm. Desperate to go back to her home in the city of Chengdu but lacking the connections to obtain the necessary return permit, Xiu Xiu begins to have sex with strangers who she wishfully believes can help her get the required permit. Lao Jin, the Tibetan man, witnesses how this girl ruins herself and tries to protect her. The film ends with Lao Jin fatally shooting Xiu Xiu, with her permission, and then himself.
The film presented two problems to me. First, the character of Xiu Xiu is self-contradictory, pessimistic, vulnerable, and weak. When she's first sent to live with Lao Jin in a tent on the Tibetan plain, isolated from the rest of the inhabitants, Xiu Xiu expresses to Lao Jin that she would never choose to live there and that her wish is to return to the city. However, she never tries to leave the place by herself. Instead she's at the mercy of men who have sex with her and never return. Also, although she supposedly needs a permit to go home, the audience is told that many "educated youth" rioted and went back to the city at that time on their own. I could not help asking why Xiu Xiu did not join these other "educated youth" to achieve her goal. And why did she choose to be so completely cut off from her family, friends, and the rest of the world?
Furthermore, instead of fighting against the predicament she's in, why does she allow these men to have sex with her, as the film shows repeatedly and in graphic detail? A film may not have to be faithful to historical facts (this film is unrealistic in many ways); however, the story has to be believable and the character's choice has to be logical and reasonable against the context he or she lives in. A good film should be inspiring and soul touching, especially when dealing with significant topics like the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
I found Xiu Xiu to be lifeless, deliberately mystifying, and purposefully claptrap. Being a "sent-down girl" myself and having heard stories told by many other "sent-down girls," I know that a character like Xiu Xiu and the choices she made are not only unthinkable and unbelievable but unrealistic and sensational. It is true that some of these sent-down youth stayed in the countryside, but the majority of them returned to their cities through their personal effort and public policy. Though many experienced harsh labor and lost the best years of their lives in the countryside, many came out tough and strong in personal character and became more successful in their lives as a result--something Yan Geling and Joan Chen have chosen not to present to American audiences.
The second problem I have with the film is what I see as the reinforcement of orientalism in the portrayal of Asian women. The image of Asian women in Hollywood movies has been exotic, sensual, and submissive. Joan Chen herself played such roles in Tai-Pan and The Last Emperor. However, even though Chen now claims that she regrets playing these roles, her film Xiu Xiu serves to perpetuate these images through the depiction of sexually charged scenes and Xiu Xiu's willingness to offer her body to please men. Instead of breaking away from the traditional stereotypes about Asian women, the film reinforces the American audience's misconception about Asian women through the depiction of Xiu Xiu's vulnerability to her surroundings, her submissiveness to men's sexual trespasses, and her choice to end rather than fight for her life.
The film was praised by some critics as "achieving a purity of vision unfound in most contemporary cinema," "a stirring tale of one woman's defiance against a mighty government," and "a well-crafted tale of the Chinese Cultural Revolution." The vision it provided to me and many of my Chinese friends, however, was a disturbing and depressing one, of a woman's submission to and stupidity about her environment as well as a distorted view of the experience of millions of "sent-down youth" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Lucy Xing Lu