'The Crossing' ('Guo Chun Tian'): Film Review

A dynamic debut from a first-time director and her young cast.

Chinese director Bai Xue's first feature, about a schoolgirl's rite of passage as a rookie smuggler, won two awards at the Pingyao festival after its premiere in Toronto.

Executive-produced by veteran Chinese auteur Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), The Crossing transcends its local premise — cross-border smuggling of goods from Hong Kong into China — to become a moving, universal story about teenage angst. Revolving around a high-school student’s transformation from a meek loner to a skilled mule, Bai Xue’s directorial debut boasts a powerful performance from its young star, accomplished visual technique and a refreshing absence of sensationalist tropes (that is, nudity and sex) that other youth dramas have indulged in so as to create a stir at the box office.

Post-Toronto, The Crossing received a triumphant homecoming when it won both the Best Film and Best Actress awards at the Pingyao International Film Festival. It marks the first title to come out of Wanda Pictures’ support program for young directors and is expected to raise debate at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival around how it takes a Chinese director to tackle a much-discussed Hong Kong issue. Beyond all this, The Crossing is destined to travel through a lot of borders as it hits the festival circuit.

Pei (Huang Yao) is a 16-year-old danfei – the term used to describe children born out of a Hong Kong-Chinese marriage. Rather typically, she lives in the southern mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen but spends most of her time – in school or at play – in Hong Kong, which is just a border checkpoint and a half-hour train ride away. As the film begins, she’s trying to come up with enough money to go to Japan with her best friend, the poor little rich girl Jo (Carmen Tong). When legit part-time jobs fail, Pei finds a solution via Jo’s boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun), who is part of a gang smuggling smartphones into China.

Wearing her school uniform on her daily cross-border commute, Pei turns out to be a natural for the job. More than just money, the work gives her a purpose in life – she becomes visibly independent and self-confident – and a surrogate family of sorts, with the gang’s matriarch (Elena Kong) and her underlings seemingly providing the human warmth Pei doesn’t get from her hard-drinking, hard-gambling mother (Ni Hongjie).

Pei’s metamorphosis is shown in a remarkable montage of snippets illustrating the dynamism and edginess of the her newfound existence, which showcases the masterful cutting by Matthieu Laclau (who has often edited for Jia Zhangke), Lin Xinmin and Tsai Yann-shan.

But The Crossing is not just constructed in the editing room. Piao Songri’s effective camerawork cannily reveals the ebb and flow of the young characters’ fluctuating emotions and experiences. The academy-trained, 24-year-old Huang, appearing in her first leading role here, delivers an electric performance as the young protagonist, switching from ennui to energetic with remarkable ease.

But Bai’s direction and screenplay is pivotal to the drama’s success. While conforming to certain norms prevailing in Chinese cinema – there’s the market-friendly premise of two girls falling out over a boy, for example, and the officially required ending in which justice prevails – she also veers away from film clichés about young lives and loves.

For instance, the budding bond between Pei and Hao, whose relationship wavers between business and romance, is impressively subtle. In a key intimacy scene, they tape smuggled goods to each other’s bodies in a tiny, crimson-lit backroom – and ends with them silently clinking beer bottles to wish each other good luck on their final job. The intense frisson of this low-key climax is much more powerful than watching them unleash their pent-up desires on screen in a hot erotic scene. It illustrates Bai’s understanding of the nuances of complex human emotions and her insight into human bodies as a vessel for commerce, as much as carnal desire, in contemporary society.

Production companies: Wanda Pictures
Director: Bai Xue
Cast: Huang Yao, Sunny Sun, Carmen Tong
Screenwriters: Bai Xue, Lin Meiru
Producer: Cary Cheng, Sun Tao, He Bin
Executive producer: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Director of photography: Piao Songri
Production designer: Ahong Cheung
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Lin Xinmin, Tsai Yann-shan
Music: Gao Xiaoyang, Li Bin
Sales: Wanda Media
In Cantonese and Mandarin
99 minutes