Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2021 10:54 am 
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SHEN YU: THE OLD TOWN GIRLS 兔子暴力 (2020) - 2021 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22)


Bad mother, weak daughter

What Shen Yu has chosen to deal with in her debut feature is very bad parenting, as well as, if one could call it that, very unwise "childing," which she presents in something of a "neo-noir" context in the setting of a lower tier city in contemporary China. This concept of "noir" seems a bit of a stretch; but if all you need is some cops and some losers, some criminal behavior and an overriding melancholy, you've got it. The dry, ironic feeling of traditional noir is missing. What we have left here is sadness. That seems to fit with the vast but cheerless milieu of this nameless city, surrounded by water and factories and not much hope.

The two central figures are an irresponsible young mother, Qu Ting (Wan Qian, of The Wild Goose Lake, a more fully noirish film) and her unwise daughter, Shui Qing (Li Gengxi). The girl is forced to live in the unfriendly environment of her father and stepmother, equally mean and uncaring. It turns out her mother left when she was one year old, so she says when she appears. Poor Shui Qing falls upon her with almost unwelcome delight, blind to the fact that Qu Ting is childish and irresponsible - and being a kind of dancer, a theater person, herself inadequate and needy, probably hopes to do a star turn and be admired, which works. Then when Qu Ting is around for a while some heavies appear, employed by loan sharks, very bad company indeed (the "noir" personalities). Qu Ting has borrowed a lot of money from very bad people and needs to pay up pronto. You know the drill.

This happens, but the film opens in medias res with a very troubled event that happens later in time involving Qu Ting's bright yellow car (she surrounds herself with yellow things, for various symbolic reasons, no doubt), Sui Qing's father, and a classmate's father, and some cops outside a station. There is talk of a kidnapping, and then a mistake, and then something much worse. This puts the viewer on her guard and creates a sense of excitement. The trouble is it's hard to follow up when you start out a film so fast, and director Yu has somewhat deadened her climax. Nonetheless this opening is sophisticated and original; and the titles, with the sweeping music and panoramic shots of bridge and water and large, nondescript Chinese city, really grab you and make you expect a lot, perhaps a bit more than you actually get.

The two actresses are the thing, anyway, and their interactions don't disappoint. As Qu Ting, Wan Qian is memorable, mercurial, totally unreliable, glamorous and disreputable in equal measure. As Shui Qing, Li Gengxi is good too, vulnerable, desperate, above all desperately loyal to her newly discovered mother, to whom she attaches herself and for whom she's instantly ready to risk all, and does. It's acknowledged in the dialogue when Qu Ting tells Shui Qing, knowing she's brought her only trouble, that if she hadn't come along she would be a normal schoolgirl. Now, she is not.

There is infinite pathos in Shui Qing's attempt to hold on to her two girlfriends, the quiet Ma Yueyue (Zhu Zyng) and Jan Xi (Yu Chai), who poses as a model and has rich parents. A major sequence comes when Shui Qing begs Jan Xi, the confident rich girl (who inexplicably wears short shorts to school when nearly everyone else is in uniform) to come to her birthday the next day. Jan Xi says she will, only if Shui Qing reads a statement over the school pubic address system that she's written about her mistakes with and betrayal by her mother - and Shui Qing, as unwisely loyal to her girlfriend as she is to her mother, does read it.

Before this, three is a sequence where Qu Ting comes to the high school with the teacher's cooperation and teaches a wide-ranging class in dancing, and into this for a partner draws the class hottie, Bai Haowan, leading to much suspicion and jealousy, since all the girls long for Bai Haowan. This is a throwaway, but serves two purposes. It's another of this film's many demonstrations of how mean people can be, and it displays how impressive Qu Ting can be, but only fleetingly, since it's only a one-time performance.

The three coauthors of the script, Shen Yu, producer Fang Li, and Qiu Yujie, contribute many other details and developments of characters to the action. The multiple hands may account for a structure that, from the attention-grabbing opening, never quite fully coheres. Yet there is a freshness here, and a skillful blend of art film and entertainment.

The sweeping music has been mentioned, though there's always a danger that when one notices a score, it has gone wrong. Likewise with the cinematography of dp Wang Shiqing, which makes people look blurry sometimes, and one wondered why.

The Old Town Girls 兔子暴力, 104 mins., debuted at Tokyo Nov. 1, 2020, also showing at Moscow Apr. 26, 2021. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22,) shown (internet) Aug. 13. Release in China Aug. 14.

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