With Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion classing up the international festiva/art house circuit, the arrival of Jian Fan's documentary Still Tomorrow — about the Belle of Amherst's 21st century Chinese counterpart, Xiahua Yu — is serendipitously timed indeed. One of the more successful attempts at transferring the delicate power of poetry to the screen, this small-scale but stealthily spellbinding profile of an offbeat, engaging protagonist deserves close inspection by bookers and programmers alike following its runner-up Special Jury Prize at IDFA.
Yu achieved national prominence early last year when her short poem of romantic ardor Cross Half of China to Sleep With You became an "overnight" internet sensation on the country's WeChat platform. The fortyish farmer from the central province of Hubei visited Beijing soon after to meet her fans, in an encounter described as "probably the biggest literary event in China since Mo Yan's Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2012." After watching Still Tomorrow, bookmakers may well be tempted to trim the odds on Yu emulating her much-censored countryman some time in the next two decades, so effusive is the praise ("the sound of our times") heaped around her modest shoulders.
Yu's story is certainly an irresistible one from a journalistic and human-interest angle, as she has been afflicted with cerebral palsy since early childhood. She is always referred to in Chinese media as the "peasant poet" or the "disabled poet," facile labels which this wryly humorous lady, whose uninhibited work often touches on sexual matters, instinctively rejects.
But there's little doubt that Yu is a genuine celebrity — even a literary superstar — at home, her exalted status among the urban literati sitting incongruously with her simple regular life on the small holding of her aging, down-to-earth parents ("work more, make more" is their favorite proverb.) And as the inspirational Yu receives accolades and adulation in Beijing — even making an appearance on a mainstream reality-TV show — the words of the old WWI ditty may come to mind: "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"
Jian is, however, at pains to point out the extent to which Yu draws inspiration for her poetry from her unspoiled surroundings — their quietly idyllic nature potentially threatened, ironically enough, by the specter of tourists beating a path to the famous writer's remote door. Jian's limpid visuals, executed in subtly vibrant DV in collaboration with co-cinematographer Ming Xue, deploy imagery that finds examples of captivity and confinement in the natural world: a tiny fish finds itself in a small puddle of rainwater on a large leaf. Yu's poem's are sensitively interpolated, being spoken aloud while simultaneously the text appears onscreen — a la Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.
Underlining the Emily Dickinson parallels, one commentator pronounces that "their isolated lives makes them imaginatively extravagant." But whereas Dickinson never married and became increasingly reclusive in her later years, the gregarious Yu was hitched as a teenager to Yin, an uneducated laborer who's shown working construction in big cities thousands of miles from Hubei. The pair had a child soon after (the kid is absent from the film as he's always away at college), but obvious disparities in temperament saw the couple drift apart.
The ongoing frictions between the two — money-grubbing Yin certainly doesn't emerge with much credit — and the means by which they are eventually resolved provide crucial touches of drama and variation in a picture often content to drift along at an agreeably reflective and ruminant pace. Director Jian maintains a low-key presence, occasionally audible but never visible and generally maintaining a fly-on-the-wall detachment. Twanging strings are periodically deployed to underline the poignancy of lovelorn Yu's plight in a conventional manner unlikely to find favor with the flinty, mold-breaking poet herself.
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production companies: Youku Tudou
Director-screenwriter: Jian Fan
Producers: Hongmiao Yu, Zitao Xu
Executive producer: Wei Ming, Wang Ping
Cinematographers: Ming Xue, Jian Fan
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Jian Fan
Sales: Jian Fan, Chong Qing, China (email@example.com)
In Mandarin Chinese
Not rated, 88 minutes