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The Purity of Tragedy

[whitespace] Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl
More Than a Day in the County: Lu Lu plays a young Chinese woman who volunteers for rural work in the new drama 'Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.'

The story may be harsh, but Joan Chen's 'Xiu Xiu' is anything but depressing

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S NOTHING depressing about pure tragedy; it's only failed tragedy that sends you searching for dumb comedy. An audience's reluctance to go see something tragic is reinforced by too many bad movies. Sometimes, it's not the sorrow of a film's story that depresses but a weak, showy performance or a script that loads all of the misfortunes of the world onto one groaning, symbolic character.

Other times, a film is compromised by the jaded, mawkish tricks of a tear-jerker. It's not that you're not a serious enough person to handle tragedy--often it's the movie that's frivolously dumb, even when it deals with the topic of slow death. The Bicycle Thief isn't depressing, nor is The Dream Life of Angels. Nor, I think, is the independent film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.

The film is about the snuffing out of a sweet but conceited Chinese girl, and it's the purest kind of tragedy. The action begins in the 1970s, in China. Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu) volunteers for the Educated Youth program. The scheme sent hundreds of city adolescents deep into the countryside. Once the youths got there, the Chinese government promptly forgot them. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, the young men and women sought desperate remedies to get back home; some even crippled themselves in hopes of a ticket back.

Xiu Xiu is somewhat luckier. She has to share a tent with a man she's never met. The old-movie joke--it was the "Walls of Jericho" scene in It Happened One Night--has a sting to it here. The tent is lonely and punctured with holes and looks as if it were sewn up out of old army blankets. But her new housemate, Lao Jin (Lopsang), is a gentle guardian, a tribal herdsman wounded unto isolation by a rival tribesman's knife.

And at first, Xiu Xiu finds a sort of contentment raising ponies in the middle of nowhere. In this Eastern Western, set in a part of Asia that looks like the high plains, the beauty is compelling. The clouds are massive, and there are wildflowers in the spring. But the grandeur never fools us; we know how difficult it would be to live there.

Xiu Xiu is too proud to settle for a life as a nomad, even when it's apparent she's been used and discarded by the government. Lao Jin is tender to her. She's a thing of awe to him, and he pampers her in every way he can. But the girl is so desperate that she begins to petition the local officials for papers so she can go home. Soon, she bargains with them with her body, the only thing she has. As played by Lu Lu, Xiu Xiu is leavened with frailties. She's often thoughtless, snobby, a vain chatterbox. These qualities are forgivable because of her girlishness. They also make dramatic sense: her vanity is the reason she cracks.

Director Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) directs the story with subtlety but not demureness. Remembering China of the '70s, she hasn't forgotten the coarse, tough side of life. Xiu Xiu's waning pride and Lao Jin's quiet desperation to make her happy result in a story worked out with the realism and understatement of a ballad. Xiu Xiu gently reminds of your luck--even if you don't care to be reminded, even if you don't have much luck. Pure tragedy purifies you, and that's what the point of it is.

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (R; 99 min.), directed by Joan Chen, written by Yan Gelling and Chen, photographed by Lu Yee and starring Lu Lu and Lopsang, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the July 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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