Boys and girls are dressed alike, singing in unison, sitting rapt before a movie screen that shows glorious war footage, the triumph of good over evil. These early images in Joan Chen’s debut feature, Xiu Xiu, the Sent Down Girl, set the scene in mainland China during the Cultural Revolution (mid-1970s), in a city called Chengdu. As the children are watching the war stories unfold on screen, their attention is suddenly diverted from projected battles to real soldiers, who appear in the dark with flashlights and guns. As they round up the kids, the soldiers exhort them to “forget their ancestors.”
This ominous sequence also sets up the film’s central themes: the Cultural Revolution demands that everyone work to rebuild a fundamental economy, no questions asked. And the cost of the Revolution’s infamous repression of intellectual activity is represented here in the girl Xiu Xiu (played by Lu Lu), sent down from Chengdu to the countryside, where she’s to learn a useful trade, horse herding. Written by director/co-producer Chen and Yan Geling, and based on his novella Tian Yu, the movie follows the short life of 15-year-old Xiu Xiu, who wants to make her family proud by serving her nation.
And so she goes willingly to the remote Tibetan borderlands, where she’s assigned to live and work with the master horse trainer Lao Jin (Lopsang). She’s told that following her re-education through six months of hard labor, she will be returned triumphant to the city and her family, prepared to take an honorable position in the Girls’ Cavalry. When she arrives at Lao Jin’s place, however, Xiu Xiu is understandably apprehensive: he lives in a tent in the middle of nowhere, moving occasionally to keep his animals eating wild grasses. His face is weather-beaten, his posture stooped. Rumor has it that he was castrated in a battle some years back.
Xiu Xiu is somewhat comforted by Lao Jin’s gentleness, not to mention his apparent inability to make sexual demands on her. But she’s also frustrated and bored by their crude existence. Yue Le’s breathtaking, simple cinematography conveys both the stern beauty of the landscape and the void it represents for the city girl. She counts the days until her stint is up, marking them precisely on her calendar, and strings a blanket between her space and Lao Jin’s preserving her girlish sense of privacy.
Her teacher, meanwhile, is infinitely patient, humble, and solicitous. When Xiu Xiu frets about the lack of facilities, he uses taped-together plastic tarps to build her a bath which warms in the sunlight. The appointed release day comes and goes with no one arriving to retrieve her, and Xiu Xiu begins to wonder at the wisdom of her elders, which she’s taken for granted until now. Eventually, she learns from a local vendor that the cavalry has been disbanded and indeed, she has been forgotten. Desperate to get back home to the city, Xiu Xiu believes the vendor’s promise that he can arrange the paperwork for her return, in exchange for sex.
She agrees to the deal, but soon finds that he’s not quite so well-positioned as he led her to think. Soon other men from the city insignificant officials, good-timing soldiers hear about her availability and come to visit, also assuring her that they’ll help her.
Though Lao Jin is often absent during these encounters, when he is in the tent, he cringes, silent and suffering as he listens to the sounds coming from the other side of the blanket-wall that once symbolized the girl’s youthful modesty. Heartbroken himself, he tends to Xiu Xiu’s spiritual wounds after each man leaves, bathing her with water that he rides miles to get. While both Lao Jin and Xiu Xiu are plainly agonized and feeling optionless, the irony of this impotent man caring for the girl he would, in truth, like to bed, is not a little awful.
The film wants so badly to condemn the rigid Revolutionary dictates and limitations the belief that every citizen had a predetermined and inflexible role in the regime that it find its necessary also to blame the passivity of its protagonists. Their submission to their fates seems, however, as much a function of traditional values, such as unquestioning obedience to and respect for apparent superiors. Chen’s movie doesn’t let anyone off the hook: as heroes, Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin are less noble than they are frustrating.
Though Xiu Xiu’s story is increasingly sad, Chen’s filmic choices remain conscientiously unsentimental. The girl’s transition from dutiful soldier to pitiful victim is displayed through long distance shots of the relentless, snowy landscape and tight, dingy interiors. At one point, Lao Jin comes home to see Xiu Xiu laughing and playing with one of her (unofficial) johns, seeming almost like the girl she was so recently. But she stops short when she sees Lao Jin, reminded that her existence is fixed, her life potential over and done.
This indictment of the Cultural Revolution is structured as a kind of legend. There’s a male voice over (by offscreen Luoyong Wang), which refers to the “long periods” when there was “no news of her.” At first, the device sets up the mythic proportions of the girl’s suffering, but eventually, it seems to be framing a distance from the story, a self-protective removal from the experience. And in this sense, the voice-over also alludes to Lao Jin’s point of view, which comes to dominate Xiu Xiu’s. As the film pulls back, watching Xiu Xiu self-destruct through his helpless eyes, the story of his pain seems almost to overwhelm hers. It’s as if her internal life is so devastated and her dreams so fractured, that her perspective can’t even be imagined anymore.