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Emotion Transcends Borders in Bai Xue’s ‘The Crossing’

No matter where we live, we often dream of escape. Bai Xue’s debut film tells the story of a girl who already inhabits two worlds but risks everything to travel somewhere else.

Bai Xue wants her audience to feel. The Chinese filmmaker believes that viewers don’t always remember specific scenes or pieces of dialogue after they’ve left a screening. But they do remember emotions; they do recall what the characters onscreen were feeling, and this is why she does her best to place filmgoers in the skin of her protagonists.

Emotional resonance and empathy are especially important to the emerging director when showing a film to international audiences. Cultures may differ, but emotion is universal. Speaking through an interpreter, she revealed that she’d been nervous about the TIFF premiere of her debut film, which was, in fact, its world premiere. She’d worried that an audience outside China might not completely understand the story. To her relief, the reaction was positive, and she attributes this to people identifying with her protagonist’s feelings.

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The Crossing is the story of Peipei, a 16-year-old girl who dreams of flying to Japan for a spa vacation with her best friend, Jo, and of climbing Mount Fuji to experience snow. Like 30,000 other children who do so every weekday, she commutes from Shenzhen in Mainland China to her school in Hong Kong. Although just over 10 miles separate the two cities, they are worlds apart. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is part of the People’s Republic of China but, under the “one country, two systems” structure, enjoys some autonomy from the Mainland. As a result, the border is guarded and students making the crossing must go through customs.

To earn the money for the trip of a lifetime, Peipei sells smartphone cases and screen protectors to her classmates. Through a twist of fate, she ends up smuggling the latest and most desirable smartphones from Hong Kong into Shenzhen. This turns out to be a far more lucrative racket. After all, the phones are available first in Hong Kong and also cost less there than they do on the mainland. Demand far exceeds supply, and who better to carry illicit electronics across the border than an innocent-looking school girl?

The Crossing is shot mostly in ambient light. The frenzied pace of life in claustrophobic Hong Kong is captured with handheld cameras, while the comparative tranquility and the open spaces of Shenzhen are shot using fixed ones.

Between these two realities lies the chaotic nowhere land that smugglers occupy on either side of the border. Especially intense is a scene set at an electronics market in Shenzhen, where young men fall over each other as they make offers on a contraband smartphone with a broken screen that a frightened Peipei is looking to repair.

This sequence may have taken place in China, but its reality is universal. These phones are tokens of vanity, and the possession of the latest and greatest model confers a special status on any person who owns one. After all, youth all over the planet are obsessed with brands.

One of the most affecting scenes in the film shows Peipei and Hao, her best friend’s boyfriend, taping smartphones to each other’s torsos as they prepare to smuggle more than the usual handful across the border. The sequence is shot in red light, and Bai Xue slathered the actors in baby oil to make them appear sweatier and more hormonal. She also instructed the film’s sound designer to focus on the couple’s breathing as a way of increasing the sensuality of the scene.

As a young filmmaker trying to establish a unique voice, Bai Xue made a conscious effort not to reference other films. She relied on her instincts and on her understanding of cinematic craft. 

Although this is her first film, it comes 11 years after her graduation from the Beijing Film Academy. Bai Xue completed her studies at a time when the Chinese film industry was in a slump, and there were few opportunities for emerging filmmakers. She’s spent the 10 years on a journey of self-discovery while exploring and researching potential themes and subjects for her films. She also got married and had a child during this decade away from filmmaking.

After researching and co-writing the script that became The Crossing, Bai Xue found herself directing an experienced crew, roughly half of which comprised former classmates from her university days.

At no point did Bai Xue feel intimidated as a first-time director. In fact, being surrounded by so many young and familiar faces was invigorating. She felt honored to work with this new wave of Chinese filmmakers because they were members of her own generation and shared a common aesthetic. At the same time, she was secure enough to listen to suggestions from her crew, and to incorporate their ideas when they fit her artistic vision.

Editor Matthieu Laucla made one such suggestion — or rather, showed it to the director in one of his cuts. At key moments in the narrative, he freeze-framed Peipei. During the Q&A that followed the second public screening of the film in Toronto, Bai Xue explained that she loved the idea because it captured the young girl’s emotional arc. She started at “What?” moved to “Wow!” and ended up on “Oh shoot!” (Or something that sounds a lot like that.)

Bai Xue also appreciated the wisdom and mentorship of her producer, renowned Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, He was highly involved during the preproduction phase, but he stepped back once shooting began and only offered advice when asked.

As the film neared completion during the editing phase, Bai Xue found herself asking fewer questions of Tian, and came to realize that his gradual withdrawal from the production process was his way of allowing her to discover her own voice.

Her voice and vision did not go unnoticed at TIFF. The Crossing was given an honorable mention by the jury for the NETPAC Award for best international Asian film premiere in the discovery or contemporary cinema programs. Jurors expressed that Bai Xue “shattered cinematic boundaries to create an original visual language that propelled her protagonist’s emotional crossing into adulthood as she crossed the physical boundaries of Hong Kong into Mainland China.”

At a post-awards ceremony reception, Bai Xue said she was elated to have earned this honorable mention because TIFF is a major and very competitive festival. She also said that The Crossing was her first feature and only a beginning. The young director sees her second and third films as a big test and as opportunities to hone her filmmaking skills.