She, A Chinese

She, A Chinese


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Li Mei has never been more than five miles from home.

This is the heading of the first chapter of Xiaolu Guo's inventive modern saga, and it sets the tone for everything that is to come. Worldwide, some things are much the same. Mei is a bored teenager more interested in glamour magazines than in helping her mother. She's offered the prospect of marriage with a respectable man who wears suits and glasses and seems genuinely sweet, but she's more interested in edgy young men with fast scooters and the promise of the city. What makes Mei different is that she's not just a dreamer - she has the guts and the determination to go out and take what she wants. The problem is that, like many young people, she may not really know what that is.

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After an ugly incident in her village cements her desire to get something more out of life, Mei heads for the city; but of course the city, in its turn, is not enough. Her insatiable drive will eventually carry her to the West and to a very different life - or at least one that seems different on the surface.

She, A Chinese is slow to build yet powerful throughout, its pumping Chinese pop music soundtrack hinting at the passion that simmers inside mild-faced Mei. Lu Huang, outstanding in what is only her third film, turns in a performance of brooding intensity, at first seemingly carefree, gradually proving a force greater than any around her. Her charisma sucks in the viewer and keeps us fascinated even at times when her youthful self-centeredness makes her decidedly unpleasant. Mei makes a lot of mistakes, but she rolls with them. Nothing is ever straightforward - nothing fits the social templates we've come to expect from films. As a result there is a powerful sense of realism without the film ever becoming boring.

What is perhaps most refreshing about this film is the director's perspective as a woman and as a Chinese person looking at the West. Often these things don't make a difference, but Xiaolu is prepared to challenge a number of stereotypes head on. When Mei is sexually assaulted, she responds not by becoming broken and seeking support, but by becoming furiously angry. When she works in a sweatshop making clothes, she sees it, quite reasonably, as a step up in the world.

Sex work, in its turn, is genuinely satisfying for her - she enjoys its glamour and the laziness it permits her for much of the day, and she approaches it on her own terms, with never a suggestion hat she's being exploited. We see China in a similar light (there are times when Mei serves very much as a metaphor for her country). There is no exoticism here, and poverty is everywhere, but the film never adopts a tragic gaze; everybody is getting on with daily life, with work and socialising and eating and looking after their homes. Some people might be making pirate videos or beating people up for a living, but a job is a job. Xiaolu shows us how different China is from the West whilst keeping our focus on the things that are the same.

With its quirky humour, its tragi-comic storyline and its repeated defiance of expectations, She, A Chinese is a profoundly human story with a bold scope. You're unlikely to see anything else like it in cinemas this year.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2010
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Journey of self-discovery for a young Chinese woman tired of the provinces.
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Director: Xiaolu Guo

Writer: Xiaolu Guo

Starring: Lu Huang, Wei Yi Bo, Geoffrey Hutchings, Chris Ryman, Hsinyi Liu

Year: 2009

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, France, Germany

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