Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka explore the limited options available to the younger generation of contemporary China
Dir-scr: Huang Ji, Ryuji Otsuka. Japan. 2022. 148mins
In China’s gig economy, bodies are currency. This is certainly the experience of 20-year-old Lynn (Honggui Yao) who is browbeaten by her boyfriend to improve her marketability with English classes, but who takes one-off gigs dressing as a princess at a jewellery store promotion and is tempted by the lucrative possibilities of selling her eggs. But then she discovers that she is pregnant, and her tentative first steps onto the career ladder are abruptly halted as she grapples with the options for her future. The latest picture from husband and wife team Ryuji Otsuka and Huang Ji is an engrossing and thoughtful, if slightly meandering, portrait of contemporary China which straddles the impact of Tik Tok, the self-commodification of a whole generation of ambitious young people and the social and shadow of the pandemic.
Elegant cinematography, while never showy, brings texture and depth to the story through its use of colour and deft framing
Stonewalling reunites the directors with lead actress Honggui Yao, who appeared in two of their previous pictures – both of which also explore similar themes of young female sexuality, independence and coming of age. The first of these collaborations, Egg And Stone, won the Tiger Award at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival; the second, The Foolish Bird, earned a Special Mention in the Berlin 2017 Generation 14plus section, as well as several other festival prizes. Stonewalling should enjoy similar festival interest: following its premiere in Venice’s Giornate Degli Autori section, it screens at TIFF and at the New York Film Festival. The relative dearth of Chinese independent cinema on the arthouse circuit of late might make this a picture of interest for distributors looking for quality Asian titles.
What first strikes us when we encounter Lynn at the film’s opening is how unremarkable she is. While her boyfriend issues a stream of hectoring instructions, all designed for her betterment, pretty, diffident Lynn drifts – a half-formed creature who is content to slot in with his plans for her life. Those plans include an interview with a high end suit store and, once she has finished her Air Stewardess course at college, a job with an airline. They do not, at the moment, include a baby. “If I let you have a baby, you would have to take time off school.” His back is pointedly turned on her as he makes the case for a termination. But once she returns home, to the slightly down at heel suburb where her parents (played by co-director Huang Ji’s own parents, Xiaoxiong Huang and Zilong Xiao) run a failing women’s clinic, Lynn finds herself released from the gravitational force of her boyfriend’s ambition and able to make her own decisions. It doesn’t necessarily follow that these are the right decisions.
Lynn finds her mother caught up in the fervour of a multi-level marketing scheme for a miracle product called Vital Cream. She is also paying off, in secret, compensation to a young woman whose child was stillborn as a result of her professional negligence. Lynn formulates a plan – she will have her baby, then barter it to the woman whose own child died; in return her mother’s debt will be written off. What could possibly go wrong?
Otsuka’s elegant cinematography, while never showy, brings texture and depth to the story through its use of colour – scalding neons are the backdrop to city ambitions, more muted organic tones seep into Lynn’s parents world – and deft framing. The picture is not histrionic in its approach, but there are some quietly eye-opening moments involving the treatment of potential egg donors (“Is that your own nose?” says one client, jabbing a finger in a 22-year-old student’s face). Meanwhile, as the pandemic shuts down potential avenues for advancement, Lynn belatedly comes to realise that trading on her fertility might not have been the smart life choice that she originally thought it was.
Production company: YGP-FILM
International sales: Good Move Media email@example.com
Producer: Ryuji Otsuka
Cinematography: Ryuji Otsuka
Production design: Ryuji Otsuka, Huang Ji
Editing: Ching-sung Liao, Ryuji Otsuka, Men Du
Music: Chor Guan Ng
Main cast: Honggui Yao, Xiaoxiong Huang, Zilong Xiao, Long Liu, Chi Cui, Xiaoyu Ren