`Xiu Xiu' conveys air of windswept romance

Review: Director Joan Chen captures the smallest details and most vast landscapes, but the characters seem weak in comparison.

September 03, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl" is the tragic story of a young girl who in 1975 is sent from her home in bustling Chung-du to live and work in China's vast Tibetan foothills.

As directed by actress Joan Chen in her filmmaking debut, "Xiu Xiu" draws a startlingly frank portrait of the most abhorrent and cruel elements of China's cultural revolution, and as a doomed love story, it conveys great sweetness amid the sweep of land and history. The bathos gets a bit thick, and Chen commits some glaring continuity gaps along the way, but the portrait she draws is a vivid one.

Lu Lu plays Xiu Xiu, whom we meet as an idealistic teen-ager on her way to join the Cultural Youth Revolution, in which the Chinese government sent urban youths to the countryside to work and learn new trades. Told she will train with horses and eventually join the Girls' Iron Calvary, Xiu Xiu is thrilled with her assignment, delighting in her military wardrobe and semi-official status.

But when Xiu Xiu is ordered to Tibet to help the solitary horse herder Lao Jin (Lopsang), she finds herself alone and vulnerable in a massive, desolate world. Desperate to return to her bustling hometown and her family, Xiu Xiu resorts to anything in order to win her freedom, unaware that the gentle, windblown Lao Jin is falling in love with her.

Chen, who adapted "Xiu Xiu" from Yan Geling's novella "Tian Yu" with the author, has a terrific eye for detail -- from Xiu Xiu's mother's admonition that she dry her hands before using the bath soap to the broken mirror in Lao Jin's battered military tent -- and it serves her well in telling a story that could easily be overpowered by its majestic setting.

And she proves just as able in conveying the power of that landscape, especially in those sequences in which Lao Jin gallops across the plains to fetch Xiu Xiu some water. Pulling her camera back to allow the beautiful desolation to take up the full screen, she composes her images for maximum impact.

Chen is less assured in drawing out characterizations from her actors that equal the gravity of their environs, although Lopsang has the rugged charisma to make his horse whisperer a gruffly appealing leading man. If filmgoers can see the conclusion coming from a mile away, "Xiu Xiu" is still a windswept romance worthy of admirers of the most Gothic love stories in literature.

`Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl'

Starring Lu Lu, Lopsang

Directed by Joan Chen

Released by Stratosphere Entertainment

Rated R (strong sexual content)

Running time: 99 minutes

Sun score: * * 1/2

Pub Date: 9/03/99

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