Fang zhi gu niang
(China) A Xi’an Quijang Cultural Industry Investment Co., Xi’an Movie and Television Prod. Co. production. (International sales: China Film Promotion Intl., Beijing). Produced by Zhou An, Zhou Dejia, Wang Le. Executive producers, Liu Hongmei, Ma Rui, Qiao Xinfeng, Lu Xiaoli. Directed, written by Wang Quanan.
With: Yu Nan, Lu Nian, Zhao Luhan.
By RONNIE SCHEIB
Chinese helmer Wang Quanan’s third feature, “Weaving Girl,” takes an unblinking look at the plight of beautiful factory girl Li Li (Yu Nan, star of all Wang’s films). Not only must Li Li contend with exploitative working conditions and the imminent closing of the textile mill at which she works, but she learns she’s dying of leukemia and cannot afford potentially life-saving procedures. Winner of the grand jury and Fipresci prizes in Montreal, “Girl” lacks the exoticism of Wang’s Golden Bear-crowned “Tuya’s Marriage.” Still, the pic may travel far with its canny combination of social commentary and humanist meller appeal.
Next to his compatriots’ modernist work (Ling Yiang’s femme-centric “The Other Half” comes to mind), “Weaving Girl” feels comparatively old-fashioned in the way it solicits straightforward identification with its gorgeous heroine. Yet Wang places a major stumbling block in the path of our empathy: Li Li’s profound dissatisfaction with every aspect of her life.
In the factory, that frustration manifests itself in an attractive “Norma Rae”-ish feistiness, as she loudly contests unfair labor practices. At home, however, it translates into peevish impatience with her older, careworn fishmonger husband and the son who clearly prefers his dad to his moody mom.
Once she learns of her impending death, Li Li veers between listless melancholy and febrile energy. On a trip to Beijing to visit her ex-fiance, she finds the answer to the question of why she was seemingly abandoned, as well as a rare moment of happiness by the sea. Li Li is completely transformed by these flashes of joy, which offer glimpses of the woman she might have become. They arrive unheralded, as when she and the factory chorus sing the Soviet standard that gives the film its title.
Meanwhile, the town itself undergoes massive change as the factory closing drives Li Li and the other weaving girls to the only source of employment left: taxi dancing at the local nightclub. Wives are ferried to and from the sleazy dance hall on the back of their waiting husbands’ bikes.
Wang, ably abetted by regular lenser Lutz Reitemeier, anchors his tale and his characters in a finely observed web of telling details: the lint that festoons the factory doors and windows like lethal fairy dust, or the absurd regimentation of a holiday excursion to the seashore. Wang contrasts the colorlessness of Li Li’s surroundings, and the all-white output of the textile mill, with the Beijing factory where her old boyfriend works, awash in vibrant patterns and colors.
Camera (color), Lutz Reitemeier; editor, Wang; art director, Cao Anjun; sound (Dolby Digital), Wu Lala. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Sept. 1, 2009. Running time: 97 MIN.