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VIFF chinoiserie: Taiwan island fever, mainland navel-gazing

Taiwan's Hsiao Ya-chuan upholds Hou Hsiao-hsien lineage; PRC documentarian world-premieres her narrative film debut; director-producer duo Nai An and Yang Mingming co-star in feminist tragicomedy

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The English title sounds, at best, ironic: we rarely see these “girls” happy. Even the Chinese title, 柔情史 (literally “Tender History”) seems none too apt; plenty of history here – both familial and national – but not much tenderness. Mostly the co-stars verbally lacerate each other with the surgical precision of lifelong intimates.

Their cage bouts are interspersed, though, with sulks, maudlin pity plays, grudging mutual admiration for each others’ writing and commiseration for their respective romantic break-ups. Meanwhile they dodge the neighborhood snoops in the hutong, struggle to patch the leaks in their hovel and ponder the Hobson’s choices posed by encroaching slum clearance schemes. They take turns appeasing their creaky old Grandpa in hopes they’ll be bequeathed his upscale apartment when he finally dies.

The action unfolds against the backdrop of last year’s Communist Party Congress, with the capitol on virtual lockdown for Chinese president Xi Jinping’s coronation as leader-for-life. The visible police and military presence lend an extra note of claustrophobia.

So does the tight and largely static framing, highlighting every tic and blemish in close up. We come to relish the intermittent bursts of kinetic relief when the camera backs off to track Yang as she careens through the hutong lanes on her little skateboard/scooter in a (mildly) subversive assertion of freedom.

These characters are hardly winsome, despite their occasional attempts at cloying cutesiness. But they come off as entirely relatable – and brave – to anyone who knows modern Beijing and they’re grimly fascinating to anyone who does not. Whether inside or outside China, Girls Always Happy is an art house/festival product, made of, by and for intellectuals.

As is Lush Reeds, a self-regarding piece about an investigative reporter (Huang Lu) married to a jargon-babbling sociology professor (Lin Zheyuan) in the Yangtze river hub of Nanjing. Director Yang Yishu knows whereof she speaks, having produced a trio of documentaries about the Chinese heartland and taught at Nanjing University.

Yang’s active career since 2006 spans a decade of increasing authoritarianism in China – not for nothing has she now rebased herself in L.A. In Lush Reeds, her first fiction film, she reflects the slow strangulation of media independence in the character of a stuttering editor/bureaucrat and his careerist toadies.

Huang’s character, the film’s protagonist, pines in mute frustration as her stories are spiked and her investigative unit is shut down. Even her newlywed husband seems intent on scrapping elements of her prior life – her battered, trusty old suitcase or her sloppy-but-faithful old dog – as they move into an antiseptic high-rise apartment. With all the stress, she miscarries a baby.

Breaking out of the confines of the city, she follows a tenuous investigative lead into the marshy outback of the rural Yangtze basin. But the noble rustics prove obdurate, if not outright hostile and threatening, and the local bureaucrats are blandly obfuscatory.

She meets a mysterious pre-teen – her younger self? – who seems to have secret insights, and she attends an inconclusive séance by a brusque spirit medium. But ultimately she winds up thrashing around in circles through a maze of marsh grass.

It’s an all-too-familiar storyline of reporting in China, and would carry all the authority of real-life actuality if caught on the fly in a documentary. A fiction film, though, draws its authority more from the psychological realism of its characters, and the dialogue of Lush Reeds never quite rises to the occasion.

The film does succeed visually, however, in the contrast between the sterile, angular Nanjing scenes and the gnashing greenery of the swampland. Yang Yishu is a talent well worth following.    



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