QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM SAN SEBASTIAN
Based on the autobiographical novel Dream by the little-known Chinese writer Zhang Xiu Zhen, Kong Xiu/ A Woman follows the footsteps of the titular character (played by Shen Shi Yu) from her late teens into adulthood, when she becomes a published writer. The story begins in 1967. Her mother tells the 19-year-old Xiu: “you are already one year over the age of consent”, reminding the teenager of the onus of finding a partner that’s often bestowed upon women. This is a well-meaning film about female emancipation. From the perspective of male director Wang Chao and under the strict scrutiny of the Chinese regime.
Now in her early 20s, Xiu marries a man and they have a daughter called Xue. The union is extremely unhappy, and their sex life quickly becomes a burden. Xiu has two abortions in one single year, and can barely carry on with her working duties in local textile factory. She demands a divorce and ends up marrying again. She has yet another child (this time a boy) and yet another very miserable relationship. Her husband attempts to beat the little Xiu more than once, and the little girl ends up living with her aunt. This time it is the male who demands a divorce. Once again, Xiu becomes a single mother. A few years later, she begins to write at her own accord, despite having little education and being barely literate.
Mao Zedong is a character in the film, despite never making an appearance. Characters constantly sing and revere the Chairman of the Communist Party. There is not a word of dissent, no criticism of the establishment. Occasionally corruption takes place in the factory where Xiu works, but this down to an individual’s failure, and has nothing to do with the shortcomings of the Chinese government. Kong Xiu/ A Woman is a propaganda vehicle. A film intended to show the world that China has reinvented itself and is now a modern nation where women can thrive and become independent. It is little surprise that, according to the movie, Xiu has her first piece published by… lo and behold… the magnanimous regime!
It isn’t just the propagandistic tone that makes Kong Xiu/ A Woman a fairly unremarkable film. The middle-of-the-road script lacks vigour. The acting is mostly stilted and contrived. The sex scenes are so poorly staged that they will make you cringe. At least the cinematography is accomplished, with a distinguished Hollywood feel to it. Vast sums of money were clearly poured into this production.
This is the second time that San Sebastian selects a perfunctory Chinese drama celebrating the Cultural Revolution to compete for the much coveted Golden Shell. A heavily censored version of Zhang Yimou’s equally boring One Second took part of the event’s Official Competition just last year, and it left empty-handed. Let’s hope for more audacious Chinese films in the years to come. And perhaps even a female director?
Kong Xiu/ A Woman has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 70th San Sebastian International Film Festival/ Donostia Zinemaldia.