Asian American International Film Fest: She, A Chinese

Mei Li (Lu Huang), the 20-year-old protaganist of She, A Chinese, has never been more than five miles from her village in rural China. Mei spends her days working at a local billiards joint, listening to rock music, and indulging her fascination with all things urban and Western. Pretty and rebellious, she garners plenty of attention from local men. Her mother’s solution is to either make Mei a farmer or marry her off to a nice-but-unattractive government official, which leads Mei to hightail it for the big city of Shenzen.

Once there, she struggles to get by working jobs both above and under the table, and falls in love with a rough but endearing hit man (Wei Yi Bo). But a bad turn of events leads Mei to London, where she takes more unpleasant gigs to survive — like holding signs for a Chinese buffet (wearing a panda costume) —  to standing topless and humiliated in front of an anatomy class while the professor draws organs on her bare skin.

Mei eventually propels herself into the arms (or clutches) of a number of London men. She first marries a widowed Englishman over thrice her age (Geoffrey Huntings), whom she comes to resent. Then she shacks up with a Muslim curry shop owner (Chris Ryman) with a penchant for “Oriental girl love DVDs.” Despite her incredible capacity for endurance and the bold methods she employs for survival, Mei remains in a position of limited power and compromise, as her well-being is primarily dependent upon these men.

She, A Chinese was adapted from Xiaolu Guo’s novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and based partly on Guo’s experience as a visiting scholar in London. Through following Mei’s personal transformation as she traverses continents, the film captures her desperation and desires, as well as the predicament and struggles of immigrants in urban environments.

While I feared the film would go down the road of “white knight saves Asian woman from Asian men and life of oppressive poverty,” it becomes clear that after her one love in China, these men never achieve a level of emotional significance for Mei. Her inability to improve her circumstances despite her skill at entangling men in her life — men who initially appear caring but ultimately fail to provide the safety, security, or happiness she seeks is FUCKING DEPRESSING. But at least it’s not romanticized, and I appreciate this stark depiction which is likely more true-to-life than your typical fairy tale romance, rags-to-riches archetype.

A cross-post with Hyphen

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