New Films From Spain

June 4-26 at the American Film Institute Theater

In the best-known films of Zhang Yimou, whose U.S. art-house success surely helped clear the path for Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, exceptional formal beauty frames but never upstages the pitiable circumstances of powerless heroines. First-time director Chen, however, is not so adept. The Shanghai-born actress, who moved to the U.S. in 1981, has mustered both lovely images and a nasty fate for her protagonist, but the two don’t quite connect.

Chen herself survived the Cultural Revolution, the social cataclysm that underlies Xiu Xiu, and there’s no doubting her dedication to this project. She co-wrote the film (with Yan Geling, author of the story from which it’s derived) and boldly filmed it in China and Tibet without official approval. The outcome was predictable: outrage in Beijing and delight in Taipei, where the film won several Golden Horse Awards, the Taiwanese equivalent of the Oscar.

If Xiu Xiu were the first film to evoke the Cultural Revolution, the latter response would be more understandable. In fact, the period has been vividly treated by such films as The Blue Kite, The Last Emperor, Farewell, My Concubine, and the upcoming The Red Violin. Set mostly on the Tibetan steppes and concentrating on only two characters, Xiu Xiu is less sweeping than those films. Yet it’s hardly the psychological drama its intimate scenario promises.

Like some 8 million other Chinese youngsters during the ’60s and ’70s, Xiu Xiu (Lu Lu) is taken from her family and sent to a remote rural camp. Having mastered riding, Xiu Xiu is assigned to learn horse herding from Lao Jin (Lopsang), a taciturn Tibetan. For this, she must travel even farther from her home in Cheng-du, which she remembers as a cosmopolitan wonderland. At the end of six months, Xiu Xiu is told, she’ll be qualified to join the Iron Girls’ Cavalry.

To her horror, the girl finds herself sharing a tent with a rough outdoorsman who, she taunts, has never taken a bath in his life. But the two soon become friends, and Lao Jin turns out to be rather courtly in his way; he constructs an outdoor bathtub for Xiu Xiu and opens fire on men who might come close enough to glimpse her as she bathes. Of course, Lao Jin falls in love with his pretty young charge, although the script has already banished any possibility of a sexual relationship. (Lao Jin lost his “manhood” in a “Tibetan tribal war.”) The teenager’s appeal to the middle-aged horseman is understandable, but for the product of a Maoist re-education camp Xiu Xiu seems curiously naive, impolitic, and, well, bourgeois. The film is intent on showing how the Cultural Revolution destroyed young lives, yet it fails to account for the fact that most young Chinese accepted the values of their “revolutionary” indoctrination—or at least wisely kept it to themselves if they didn’t.

When her allotted training period is over, Xiu Xiu packs for the trip back, but no one comes to get her. Eventually, a peddler (Gao Qiang) informs her that the Iron Girls’ Cavalry has been disbanded and that the best-connected of her peers have already gotten most of the available passes to return home. Other girls, he says, have used sex to get the required paperwork, and he can pull strings for her at the local party headquarters. Xiu Xiu takes the hint and submits to the peddler, but a ticket to Cheng-du is not forthcoming. What arrives instead is a parade of men; the girl accommodates them, fearful of turning down the one who might actually help her. Lao Jin watches in quiet disgust, but when Xiu Xiu turns to him for assistance he doesn’t refuse.

The cinematography of Lu Yue, who has shot several Zhang Yimou films, is the film’s foremost attraction. He renders enchanted Tibet’s stark grasslands and starry nights, sometimes in daringly black-on-black compositions that are as austere as Johnny Chen’s West-beats-East score is ornate. The fluid visual style almost belies the story’s awkwardness, but it can’t redeem the movie’s unearned final development. Xiu Xiu means to be a tragedy, but instead it’s just an anecdote from a time and place when crushed spirits and broken lives were all too commonplace.

The series beginning this week at the American Film Institute theater is dubbed “New Films From Spain,” which is accurate enough, but the program also serves as a retrospective of the work of Julio Medem, the most distinctive director to emerge from Spain in the ’90s. For those filmgoers intrigued by Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle, which recently became his first movie to get U.S. commercial distribution, this is a chance to catch up on its three predecessors, previously screened locally only by Filmfest D.C. None of them are entirely persuasive, but all are entertainingly audacious, hauntingly sensual, and clearly the product of a singular sensibility.

Despite the nature motifs reflected by the titles of his first three films—Cows, The Red Squirrel, and Tierra, all showing this weekend—Medem’s work is anything but naturalistic; the Basque writer-director builds his romantic (in both senses of that word) fables on elaborate, brazenly schematic premises. Cows follows three generations of two families from the 1875 Carlist War to the 1936 Spanish Civil War, their foibles noted impassively by bovine observers. In The Red Squirrel, a man who’s suicidal over the loss of his girlfriend and the end of his rock-singer career impulsively convinces a beautiful amnesiac that they’re longtime paramours. Like Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Tierra introduces two people whose amorous connection is foretold by their names: Angela and Angel. (To make things more interesting, the latter actually is part angel.)

Death and destiny careen through Medem’s films, which are so contrived that they must be comedies and so ominous that they can’t possibly be. They all have absurdly cosmic flourishes, yet are grounded by a powerful erotic charge, personified in all three of these movies by the striking Emma Suarez. (She’s joined in Tierra by Silke Klein, playing the leather-clad other woman who compels Angel’s attention—a dilemma the director finesses with a characteristically far-fetched development.) The Red Squirrel and Tierra, Medem’s best work, are as playful, sexy, and vital as the films that re-energized European cinema 40 years ago, although their metaphysical mystification is more akin to Latin-American magical realism and the later films of Krzysztof Kieslowksi. Even those viewers who don’t entirely trust Medem’s films—and I’m among them—are unlikely to forget them.

Klein plays a much less exotic role in another film in the series, Iciar Bollain’s Hello, Are You Alone?, which screens June 25 and 27. Although Medem is credited with script assistance, this movie is very unlike any of his. Realistic and loosely structured, it’s the tale of Nina (Klein), a young woman who impetuously leaves home after her father catches her boyfriend in bed with her. Looking for work and love, not necessarily in that order, Nina and her friend Trini (Candela Pena) drift between beach resorts and Madrid, where Nina ambivalently looks up the mother who abandoned her and then falls for a Russian who speaks only a few words of Spanish. Klein’s Nina is winning and believable, but this is one of those slice-of-life films that might have benefited from a bit more contrivance.

Before she made Hello, Are You Alone?, Bollain played a Spanish Civil War fighter in Land and Freedom, the only movie in this series that is not strictly Spanish (and the only one that has previously played commercially in Washington). Director Ken Loach’s film (which screens June 19 and 26) follows a Liverpool leftist (Ian Hart) to Spain, where he first fights Franco but ends up bewildered by the intramural squabbling of various factions. The film begins as a salute to Britain’s forgotten leftist warriors, but it evolves into something more complicated and affecting: an account of how left-wing ideologues sacrificed Spain to their own rigid, competing agendas.

The other five films in the series, which could not be previewed, are Love Can Seriously Endanger Your Health, Bwana, The Good Life, Butterfly Wings, and the The Law of the Frontier. CP