2018 Film Essays

Growing Pains: Asian Cinema and the Coming-of-Age Film

In the past year, films like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade provided novel portraits of modern girlhood; unwavering in their commitment to a certain female experience, but also universally loved actualizations of millennial nostalgia and life groomed by identity-welding technologies. The symbol incarnate of the teen girl is a particularly powerful vehicle in this day and age, offering a productive intersection of age and gender in transition that feels more encompassing of a range of experiences than, say, the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

Two films that premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival gesture in a similar direction, not exactly picking up on the trend offered in American film so much as edging the cinema of their respective nations towards a comparable cultural shift, wherein young women stand in more powerfully for budding generations than ever before.

Contemporary Chinese cinema often seems to overflow with realist indies that chronicle young people naively falling out of step, so at first glance Bai Xue’s The Crossing might seem like a generic entry into the catalogue of debut features by Beijing Film Academy graduates. However, situating an unexpectedly street smart female protagonist in the sort of role often reserved for easily swayed teen boys offers an exciting and less moralizing portrait of the way so many Chinese youths live out culturally divided existences. The Crossing follows a 16-year-old girl, Peipei (Huang Yao), as she turns to cross-border smuggling in order to raise funds for a dream trip to Japan with her wealthy best friend, Jo (Carmen Tong). Flirting with a delicate regional issue, Xue casts Peipei as one of thousands of people who straddle the line between the restrictive, state-controlled world of mainland China and the liberal cosmopolis of Hong Kong, as she crosses the border daily from Shenzhen, where she lives alone with her detested boozing mother (Ni Hongjie), to school out in the city.

At first meek and seemingly socially inept, at least in comparison to bad girl wannabe, Jo, Peipei manages to find an in with a syndicate of young iPhone smugglers led by criminal lady boss Mrs. Hua (Carmen Soup). Risking penal backlash should authorities ever choose to inspect her person at the security checkpoint, Peipei experiences the anxiety-induced thrill of the “crossing” almost daily, accruing cash and confidence as she becomes a seasoned smuggler and valuable asset as the only girl in Mrs. Hua’s team of punkish boys.

Still a fledgling woman, Peipei, who often dons a sprightly schoolgirl uniform, navigates two whole wide worlds with a sort of melancholy resilience, one foot perpetually anchored to the blood and class realities of her broken family, and an unbearably stagnant life in Shenzhen that is captured through fixed frames, while the other leans into a doorway offering more exciting possibilities. The chaos and rousing congestion of Hong Kong, with its cramped alleyways housing entire operations such as Mrs. Hua’s, is something that Peipei initially navigates with hesitation. Not yet in the mucky constellation of hormones and mature desire that characterizes the bulk of the film, Peipei and Jo find refuge in a dreamy rooftop hangout and invent entire futures for themselves as they look out at unfocused expanses of ambient city lights.

In her precarious new gig, Peipei unearths an entirely new side of herself. A shaky handheld camera conveys the jittery suspense of the first few crossings, allowing the audience to take part in the same terrifying, electrifying feeling of getting away with something. All the while a series of reflecting shots upon moving subway car windows and mirrors show Xue’s heroine in a state of silent contemplation, prismatically absorbing an environment that threatens to outpace her, just as she deliberates and processes each new risk presented by her tenuously reliable new crew with willful resolve.

Though The Crossing doesn’t feature explicit sex, one particularly erotic scene drenched in red lighting depicts a timid exploration of the body between Peipei and a fellow smuggler as they wrap iPhones to each others bodies with long swaths of packing tape. The intimacy of this scene, as they stand toe-to-toe lifting up their shirts, breathing heavily through the stuffed air of a small room crowded with boxes of junk, captures a nascent sexual spirit perhaps even more effectively than sexual tension steered into consummation.

Sexual restraint is not the case in The Third Wife, director Ash Mayfair’s lush historical drama of sexual awakening and feminine resilience. Set in the 19th century world of wealthy landowners and arranged marriages, Mayfair’s debut feature follows the titular third wife as she navigates the politics of the rural Nanh Binh estate. Filmed from the perspective of 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), The Third Wife swiftly but effectively details the stages of May’s rushed entry into womanhood, as a lover and obedient wife, and later, as a mother. Though the film certainly demonstrates a patriarchal arrangement — with the desires of an all-powerful husband Hung (Le Vu Long) dictating the rules and expectations of his small community of wives, children and servants — seams in the seemingly controlled gated estate come loose from within, baring a reality more complicated than simplistic subservience and dominance. May bears witness to illicit romances, and the consequences of one affair in particular between second wife and son ends up harming the rule-abiders on the lower rungs of the power totem more than it ever would the honor, i.e. ego, of a cuckolded husband.

While The Third Wife turns to historical representation to depict the hierarchical constraints that continue to exist amongst Vietnam’s lower classes, the film’s heavy atmospheric mood, intercutting the film’s powerful moments of discovery, realization and unsanctioned hunger with visions of natural splendor — cocoon’s sprouting, wild shrubbery shaking in the breeze and gushing, bright flower petals — seem to suggest an alternative Vietnamese culture sprouting out of, or in spite of, a backwards patriarchal system. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj captures the traditions of old Vietnamese culture in the context of a sprawling countryside with a keen observational eye, creating tangible, textured pictures of weddings and funerals, but also of bodies, as supple and fierce as any wild vegetal phenomenon. Despite the imprisonment, as it were, the film drips with desire, creating a wholly different vision of rural Vietnam that serves as an antidote to the “heart of darkness” stereotypes engineered by Vietnam war movies and their menacing depictions of forestry and vegetation as somehow in the service of the Vietcong. The film’s focus on the sisterhood of the three wives, their distinct desires and the way they embody different expressions of freedom or power seems to represent a multiplicity of feminine experiences that better mirrors the incipient, sexually liberated culture of Vietnam today. When May realizes her desire for another woman and acts on it — in spite of her age and ranking amongst the wives — feels less like an explicit taboo-breaker than it does a natural erotic assertion, akin to the viral Vietnam “The Bachelor” drama that saw two female contestants fall in love and consequently leave the show. That actual Vietnamese people had relatively unremarkable reactions to this bit in comparison to the Western outpour of enthusiastic support and admiration might speak to the differences in normative behavior regarding sexuality and sexual-orientation. In any case, the feminine desire on display in The Third Wife reaches far beyond the patronized sex workers of Kubrick or in the white male imaginary for that matter.

Capitalizing on the coming-of-age story to convey truths about society at large — sex, class relations, the east/west divide — is hardly novel. The late Edward Yang, of course, directed what are perhaps two of the most significant films of this ilk in Asian, if not world cinema with A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Yi Yi (2000). These films, however, are — at their core — emblems of a male reflective consciousness, in which women play complex, but still piecemeal nuclear roles, as in the first, or catalysts for male development, as in the second. The success of The Crossing and The Third Wife, both of which were recognized at TIFF by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema, should speak to the unique ability of female filmmakers and female characters in filling in the narrative gaps in Vietnamese and Chinese cinema, in which male directors wield dominant creative control. That the ideas and modern attitudes of new generations are better understood along feminine contours is simply icing on the cake.  

Beatrice Loayza (@beansproutbea) is a freelance film and theater critic based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in MUBI Notebook and Next Best Picture, among other publications.