Xiu Xiu: The Sent-down Girl
Director: Joan Chen
Screenplay: Yan Geling and Joan Chen, from the novella Tian Yu by Yan Geling
Cast: Lu Lu, Lopsang, Jie Gao
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Stratosphere)

Grade: C

An essential element of tragedy, it seems to me, is that the ruinous events in question seem somehow, paradoxically, both avoidable and inevitable. Lose the former, obviously, and there's no semblance of dramatic tension; ditch the latter, on the other hand, as does this heavy-handed Cultural Revolution melodrama, and your protagonists become not so much the intended Victims of Fate's Vicissitudes as merely People Too Darn Stupid to Live. Conventionally pretty and briskly paced, the movie's reasonably diverting so long as Chen sticks to forging a standard-issue tentative bond between the title character and the laconic, genitally-damaged herdsman to whom she's been assigned as part of her "education"; small pleasures abound, like the look of giddy gratitude that ever-so-slowly dawns on Xiu Xiu's face when she sees the bathing pool that Lao Jin has dug for her. Once the plot's more deterministic gears commence a-grindin', however, what had seemed a delicate platonic romance gradually metamorphoses into the arthouse equivalent of a bad horror movie -- the kind in which the recently deflowered coed dashes up the stairs to the attic even though a moment's thought would suggest that if the bogeyman isn't already in the attic (odds: 7:5), he'll soon be following her up the stairs, which did I mention are the only way out of the attic short of a swan dive onto the driveway, these stairs. At least our hypothetical bimbo can use panic as an excuse; Xiu Xiu, by contrast, stranded on the steppes, has nothing but time to ponder her situation, and consequently none of her self-destructive choices seem remotely believable. (I'm not saying this kind of thing didn't happen, please note; I'm just saying I didn't buy it as presented here.) The bleak finale, which is clearly supposed to be a furtive-tear-brusher, is simultaneously contrived and nonsensical; both characters sport puzzled expressions, as if thinking "I don't know why I'm doing this, but that's what it says in the script." The experience wasn't a total waste of time, however: not only did I walk away with a new understanding of the nature of tragedy, but I've now finally, after seeing more than 3200 movies, chanced upon one that begins with the letter 'X'.*

* (Actually, I'd previously seen an avant-garde film by Ken Jacobs entitled XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX, but that's more of a cinema-related performance art piece than a conventional movie -- Jacobs has to be there in the theater fiddling with the projectors, and no two screenings of his "film," which distorts found footage in disorienting ways, are exactly the same -- so I'm not sure that it really counts.)