Xiaolin Xiaoli

Bottom Line: A harsh and indignant depiction of sexual deprivation and exploitation among China's poorest.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- Zhang Miaoyan may belong to the same brood of independent filmmakers such as Ying Liang ("Taking Father Home"), Wei Tie ("Distance") or Zhao Ye ("Ma Wujia"), who put postreform China's social injustices and grass-roots misery on exhibition for a festival audience. But his "Xiaolin Xiaoli" also shares camaraderie with Bunuel's "Los Olvidados" in the way unflinching neo-realism and excoriating social criticism are transcended by aching poetry and surrealism.

Sexual frustration, depicted without moralistic window dressing, is the film's single, unswerving theme. This is directly linked to the protagonists' social disenfranchisement in a corrupt and uncaring state. The audacious assertion is a hurdle for public screening in China, though the blatantly sexual subject matter may attract a diverse audience overseas.

The film's sexual politics are established early on, when a low-angled camera pursues a pair of female legs in high heels strutting along a dusty road. It catches the eye of junkyard worker Xiaolin, the 26-year-old virgin protagonist. Unavailability breeds contempt. "Bitch asshole!" he seethes and runs home to masturbate before a faded calendar. The film provides an inventive masturbator's manual for the really desperate, like boring a hole in a lardy strip of pig's skin.

Xiaolin's sexual deprivation is represented as equally inhumane as not being able to afford education or health care. He is so low down the poverty line that he has to starve for a week for one night's paid sex. Zhang conveys a palpable sense of how it's an all-consuming obsession. In fact, Xiaolin's testosterone overdrive is exacerbated by his fellow-laborer Lao Qan, a 40-year-old bachelor addicted to prostitution. There is not much else gratifying in their wretched lives. Pigs are a recurrent motif that evokes their animalistic existence.

A complementary narrative introduces Xiaoli, a woman who moonlights in a barbershop-cum-brothel while her husband works in Shanghai to pay off debts. Her frustration is expressed poetically in letters of longing to her husband but its nature is the same as Xiaolin's unsoothed libido.

Xiaoli's plight tells the prostitute's side of the story, a running list of male abuse. The weak prey on the weaker so the prostitutes just take it out on more destitute clients like Xiaolin and Lao Qan by humiliating and cheating them. With exploitation and hostility at both ends of the business transaction, it is just a matter of time before angst erupts into violence.

The film ends with a dedication to 20 million prostitutes and 150 million farm workers in China. It is punctuated with comments on government campaigns that went to pot and state broadcasts warning the public against all kinds of petty crimes (while graver abuses go unchecked).

Shot digitally on the cheap, using open locations of a shantytown and interiors of pitch-dark squalor where unsavory sex takes place, the cinematography is surprisingly above average, with many beautifully composed shots.

Xiaolin Xiaoli
Rice Production
Director/producer/director of photography/editor: Zhang Miaoyan
Screenwriters: Zhang Miaoyan, Wang Lianggui, Mao Danhui
Music: Jiang Hongwei
Xiaolin: Mao Danhui
Xiaoli: Liu Yun
Laoqiang: Deng Xiaolong
Agang: Li Chengliang

Running time -- 108 minutes
No MPAA rating