Xiu Xiu, the Sent-Down Girl
Sooner or later, it seems, the urge to be taken seriously afflicts everyone who hangs around Hollywood. Actors start writing novels, or collecting art. Or, most often, they decide to direct -- as has actress Joan Chen, best-known for being the Stepin Fetchit of slope-eyed temptresses, with Xiu Xiu, the Sent-Down Girl.
Slow, earnest, and clunky, Xiu Xiu (which Chen also co-produced and co-wrote) is a pocket historical melodrama. The title character (waifish Lu Lu) is a teenager sent from the city to the Tibetan steppes as part of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. There she's supposed to learn horsemanship from the stoic and sooty Lao Jin (Tibetan character actor Lopsang), an ex-soldier emasculated by a war wound. When the authorities neglect to retrieve Xiu Xiu after six months, she despairs and begins having sex with passing strangers in the hope they can help her.
But Xiu Xiu's plight fails to be affecting. The Cultural Revolution, for those who missed Mod. Chin. Hist. 101, happened when Chairman Mao (or Madame Mao, depending on who's telling it) vested political power in China's ideologically correct youth -- leading, basically, to a huge live-action production of Lord of the Flies, in which middle school kids nationwide persecuted their elders and waged open gang warfare. Under the circumstances, sharing a tent in Tibet with a castrated cowboy would have been a pretty soft billet.
Also, the heroine's desperate strategy makes no sense -- the movie mentions that "headquarters" is only a two-hour ride away, and that buses run back to her city. Surely Xiu Xiu could at least go where she wants to go first, and then sleep with people to get her paperwork straightened out.
Instead she mopes on the steppes, letting men roger her in exchange for empty promises and the occasional apple. Yes, apple. And the sinful fruit is among the film's subtler touches. Mostly Chen deals in a kind of subsymbolic symbolism: Pretty flowers mean happiness, pigtails mean innocence, storms mean trouble, a gun means someone's gonna get shot.
The central symbol herself is meant to be intrepid and innocent, but she comes off as passive and as a calculating simperer. Xiu Xiu spends her exile lounging around in an improbably extensive wardrobe and making Lao Jin ride 10 miles to fetch her bathing water. Lopsang hangs in admirably in the thankless role; he and the occasional deft bit of yak photography are the movie's high points. The rest is a clumsy bore: a vague and sappy narrator natters on early, then takes a break for two-thirds of the movie; a murky subplot sputters and dies. The ending does satisfy, but not in a nice or intentional way. There are plenty of good reasons for Chen to quit her day job, but Xiu Xiu isn't one of them.