I first became aware of Xiaolu Guo at TIFF 09, when her She, A Chinese (a Golden Leopard winner at Locarno that year) was the first film I attended. It was a terrific film and her post-screening Q&A showed her to be a thoughtful and incisive filmmaker (she’s a poet and novelist as well). She happened to tell a story about the post-production process of her film and mentioned that she also had a documentary at the festival that was related to her feature film (Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country). Of course I had to see that as well, so I scooped up tickets. Great companion piece and between the two, it was the highlight of the festival for me that year.
So I was excited to see that she had a film at this year’s fest, and was able to get tickets for her latest film, UFO In Her Eyes. Xiaolu has ideas pouring out of her and she expresses those ideas in a fiercely passionate voice. Her Q&A after the film was again, amongst the best and most thoughtful moments of the festival.
This newest film (adapted from her own novel) takes place in a remote rural village in Southern China. A young, naked boy, seen from the rear only, has a sort of plastic mannequin on a string and he drags it behind him until he is out of the frame. Kwok Yun is meeting her lover (he’s the married schoolteacher) for a tryst under a 100-year old tree. When they are done, her lover leaves on his bike while Kwok Yun (Shi Kei) tarries. Suddenly, there is a vertiginous blinding light in the sky and this sets the tone for massive changes in that the village will undergo.
When she wakes up, there is a tall white man beside her, who has been bitten by a snake. When she goes for help and returns he has disappeared. Kwok Yun fears she has been visited by aliens. She reports what she has seen to the authorities (or, in this case, the authority). The village head, Chief Chang (played with gleeful relish by Mandy Zhang). Chief Chang sees opportunity knocking. A cottage (or in this case “village”) industry is born. A monument is erected, a theme park is built, tour buses roll in for “UFO Tours”, a luxury hotel, a golf course…Kwok Yun is the heroine of the village, having brought prosperity. Chief Chang, the prime mover of the renaissance, thinks bigger and bigger.
Kwok Yun observes this all with growing concern. It’s a picture of a peasant woman as she awakens to self-consciousness. Then she sees her own home bulldozed to make way for more “progress”.
An ironic, wistful and sometimes melancholy look at the toll that globalization has taken on Chinese rural society. Forced evacuations, bulldozed homes, communist party approved capitalism…it’s a beautifully filmed vision, but the vision itself is far from beautiful.
Xiaolu Guo has a singular vision of what film should be about. She’s an uncompromising artist that follows her ideas to where they lead – often away from commercialism – but commercialism be damned. Prior to each film, TIFF’s presenter’s read the obligatory thank you’s (“Thanks to the City of Toronto and the government of Ontario” , etc.) and don’ts (turn of all electronic devices) and their mission statement which was something like “presenting films that transform the way we see the world”. Xiaolu Guo puts that in action. Pay attention, and you just might see the world a little differently.