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A 16-year-old girl left by her parents in her rural hometown is forced to struggle with money problems, bullies and a tragic sexual awakening in The Foolish Bird, indie filmmaker Huang Ji’s return to familiar ground about one of China’s typical “left-behind children” she profiled in her award-winning 2012 breakout Egg and Stone. Huang’s sophomore feature is a twisted, painful coming-of-age story, again made on an ultra-tight budget with a skeleton crew (which includes Huang’s husband, cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka), and boasts the same downbeat tone and bleak worldview of her debut, but with more cinematic polish. The Foolish Bird’s subject matter, the unspoken nature of it and Huang’s assured, singular voice will make the film catnip for the festival circuit, where it should have a long, healthy life, but likely little beyond that.
Teenaged Lynn (Yao Honggui) lives in Meicheng, a desolate, grim city in central Hunan province, with her grandparents (Huang Zifan, Yan Shixiang), yet another left-behind child whose mother (Liu Xiaoling) is somewhere around southern Zhuhai trying to earn the living she can’t in Meicheng (her father is never mentioned). A halfway decent student, Lynn considers a career with the police, as it seems to be the region’s only sure thing. That plan is derailed by her restless friend May’s (Yao Fang) scheme to sell confiscated mobile phones Lynn swipes from school. A record as a thief won’t help her application to the force, according to a purchaser of one of the stolen phones — on behalf of a cop — and the son of the chief of police, Dawei (Xiao Liqiao). Money is always an issue, and the few hundred yuan they earn for pricey, hard-to-get cell phones buys her and May a new look and a night out. That’s good enough in the dead-end town. When the attention-starved Lynn and May cross paths with a so-called hairstylist with a shop “opening soon” in Changsha (Hunan’s capital), the evening ends in abuse and, possibly, sexual assault.
Huang paints a concise picture of Lynn’s world in the opening minutes, beginning with the police chief discussing an ongoing rape-murder investigation with his partner. Lynn is the target of classmate Mannie’s unfocused hatred, and she’s surrounded on all sides by corruption, casual misogyny and sexual violence. Otsuka’s images are suitably oppressive — the perpetually steel gray sky, Lynn amid rigid and isolating concrete, the purgatorial red streets at night — and effortlessly drive home the stifling, backward nature of the town. It’s a mercenary place with nowhere to turn with questions or fears, and where Lynn learns to conflate the negatives with the norm.
Huang’s documentary experience (Trace) is on display here. There’s a disheartening and dispassionate tone to The Foolish Bird that makes Lynn’s circumstances all the more heartbreaking or infuriating, depending on your point of view. Huang isn’t raising a clarion call; she’s matter-of-factly illustrating what one young woman must suss out on her own, with little in the way of parental guidance or protection, and learn the hard way how to navigate tricky social and sexual waters. Her second sexual encounter is as confusing as the first, leaving Lynn no wiser and considerably more damaged than she was to begin with.
The Foolish Bird is at times dead slow, and bears the same quiet deliberateness that defined the intensely personal Egg and Stone. But that film had an economy of storytelling and a vital message that made its obliqueness tolerable. To be fair, Huang also tackles the overwhelming importance of money and the omnipresence of social media (and its darker side) this time around, giving young Yao, the nonprofessional who starred in Egg, more to try and convey through her obfuscating hair and barely there voice. In any other film she’d be irritatingly mumblecore, but in The Foolish Bird she’s appropriately stunted and lacking in agency; it’s hard to connect with Yao because it’s hard to connect with Lynn. Technically accomplished despite its modest production, this isn’t entertaining filmmaking, but it is essential viewing for audiences looking for any insights about modern China.
Production company: Yellow-Green Pi, Coolie Films
Cast: Yao Honggui, Xiao Liqiao, Yao Fang, Huang Zifan, Liu Xiaoling, Yan Shixiang, Wan Manling, Liu Wenmao
Directors-screenwriters: Huang Ji, Ryuji Otsuka
Producer: Hsu Hsiaoming, Ryuji Otsuka
Executive producer: Ruby Chen
Director of photography: Ryuji Otsuka
Editor: Liao Chingsung
Music: Lim Giong
World sales: Coolie Films
In Hunan dialect
No rating, 117 minutes
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