At its best, Still Tomorrow feels like a poem, connecting thoughts and emotions with beautiful images. At its worst, the film becomes muddled, without a clear narrative. Director Fan Jian’s documentary is about Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, who has cerebral palsy. But the film seems unsure whether its focus should be her rise to fame in China, her difficulties in trying to get a divorce or her fight for financial and personal independence as a woman with a disability.
No matter which storyline is in play, the best thing about Still Tomorrow is its subject. Xiuhua kept a blog where she wrote poems, to the annoyance of her husband. When one poem was shared on Chinese social media over 1 million times, she became sought after by media, fans and publishing houses. Xiuhua is a dynamic woman, unique from those around her in tangible and intangible ways. Often wearing red, yellow or pink, her bright colors stand out sharply against both the rural landscape that surrounds her home, and the crowds that come to see her at poetry events in the city.
Xiuhua’s openness in discussing sex, marriage troubles and her disability differ from those around her as well. In interviews, people often ask about her frankness in writing about sex. For every question, Xiuhua gives an honest answer and displays her quick wit. When she says that people sometimes call her poetry “slut style,” she responds, “So what? I’m a slut. So what?” She also publicly speaks about wanting a divorce, about her difficulties because of her disability and how she still has trouble accepting herself. One fan asks if she has advice on how to be a happy woman. Xiuhua says, “I don’t have any experience. I can’t tell you.” It is this emotional frankness that people respond to in her poetry, and what makes her such a compelling subject.
Marital strife seems to take up the most time in the film, including interviews with Xiuhua’s husband and mother about her marriage. But the most interesting thing about her marriage to Yin Shipping isn’t that they don’t get along, it’s that Xiuhua is bound to her marriage because without it, she has no money of her own. Though she has tried to get a job multiple times, she has been rejected because of her cerebral palsy. Her story is a feminist tale, a glaring example of what it means for women to have little access to financial freedom and equality, including for those with disabilities. When Xiuhua becomes famous for her poetry, she can make her own money and realistically ask for a divorce for the first time. But even her divorce isn’t free from the strings money can pull. Shipping refuses, at first, to grant a divorce, until Xiuhua sues for divorce in people’s court and agrees to give a certain amount of money. When they finally do get a divorce — two weeks shy of their 20th anniversary — the divorce certificate is red, matching the color that Xiuhua so often wears, hoping it brings her luck.
Yu Xiuhua says that poems give her peace and tranquility, which Still Tomorrow sometimes provides, especially when the cinematography is bright and clean, and paired with voiceover of the subject reading her poems. When the film is visually dark, particularly inside the parent’s home, its vision becomes literally and metaphorically murkier. The constant strength is Yu Xiuhua. Just as she says when someone compares her with Emily Dickinson, there is only one Yu Xiuhua.
Rae Nudson (@rclnudson) is a writer based in Chicago. She has written for The Billfold, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Esquire and Real Life, and has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Rae loves horror and anything with a strong visual point of view, and she often watches the same movie 100 times in a row.