The Beijing-based husband and wife team of Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka’s latest portrait of China’s Generation Xi follows a protagonist from their drama “The Foolish Bird” into college but unable to escape the rootlessness and grind that the country’s work-first/money-obsessed modernization has woven into the fabric of life.
“Stonewalling” follows 20 year-old Lynn through an unplanned pregnancy. A limiting education (“Flight Attendant” is her major) propped up by a life of part-time jobs and side hustles all point to an aimlessness that sends her back home, where we see her limited parents burdened by the same grind she sees for herself.
Whatever the ecological and economic benefits of a generations-long “One Child” policy, it slams up against demographic despair as young people come of age on the back end of boom in which their parents often left them behind to move to a city to make money. They’ve grown up unmoored and uncertain of the future and their prospects, and just in time for COVID-19.
We meet Lynn at a Changsha party for the English school where she’s been studying, in addition to her university/trade school, which is teaching her first aid and everything else you need to know to be a flight attendant.
Her more outgoing live-in boyfriend is into modeling and MCing contests and the like, and is all-in on the plans of everybody at this small school’s bilingual dinner party. Learn English, get a job as a flight attendant or anything multi-lingual, and move to Australia, the UK or elsewhere the first chance you get.
Introverted Lynn (Yao Honggui) hasn’t mastered English, won’t mingle and feels ill at ease. She won’t commit to the boyfriend’s “plan.” Meanwhile, she’s doing everything she can to hustle up cash — dressing up as a bride to be a greeter at a jewelry store, even selling her eggs to the infertile.
That last side hustle is where she figures out why her breasts are hurting. She can’t donate eggs. Not yet, anyway. She’s pregnant. Still, she goes through the screening process and we pick up on some of the “tests.” With every prospective parent wanting an attractive child with a “high IQ” and “good DNA,” it’s obvious a lot of her fellow applicants can’t answer simple math questions which are this “agency’s” informal IQ test.
Gaunt Lynn doesn’t look all that healthy herself. As we get to know her, see her bullied towards an abortion by her boyfriend and then go home to live with her parents, we have to wonder about how intellectually prepared she is for the world.
Her mother’s a flighty gynecologist who runs her own “clinic” but has enthusiastically fallen into a multi-level marketing scheme for “Vital Cream,” whose enthusiastic pitch-men she parrots at sales meetings which play like TED talks for pyramid scammers.
That’s a subtext of this deliberate and sometimes touching drama. Lynn is confronted by “I just got into this business” salespeople on the subway, in every office she seems to visit in search of work. It’s a culture dedicated to working, selling and scraping together as much money as possible with every waking minute. She herself has to pitch in at Dad’s shop, which has a run on masks as soon as “the virus from Wuhan” makes the news.
Everybody tries to talk her into an abortion, especially her mother. But Mom had an “accident” at the clinic, and she’s having to pay off a family whose pregnancy she botched. That’s why Lynn has been sending money home despite going to college and taking English classes on the side.
And that’s a tipping point in her Big Decision. She’s ditched the boyfriend. Now she’s going to carry the baby to term to “give to the family” that lost theirs thanks to her mother’s blunder.
Even that decision is subject to endless negotiations between Mom and the “cousin” of the woman wronged by Mom’s mistake. China is all business, with everybody mistrusting everybody else, and there’d be a contract to sign if this whole idea wasn’t off-the-books and illegal.
Yao brings a naive frailty to her performance, a very young woman who doesn’t know the biological basics of this or that procedure she’s considering, unhappy in her relationship before the pregnancy, slow to break free of it when this new stress is put on it.
But I have to say this film, which finally finds some genuinely moving moments in the third act, is slow to the point of laborious. Lives are observed with a decent degree of closeness (Lynn’s father slaps around her mother, and she has to intervene in one of their many fights). It’s just that there isn’t enough story here to justify the excessive run time, despite the vast collection of details that add up to a picture of China that’s something other than State Approved.
The pathos of the third act is somewhat muted as our co-writers/directors never develop the affair that led to the pregnancy or overtly get at Lynn’s ennui and angst.
Still, it’s worth checking out “Stonewalling” just to see a picture of China that’s not State Approved or attempted by outsiders. This is a culture people are growing up in, and a generation of them are “lost,” with many hell bent on escaping for all sorts of reasons.
Rating: unrated, nudity
Cast: Honggui Yao
Credits: Scripted and directed by Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka. A KimStim release
Running time: 2:28