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Bloody hell! This is one of the more painful, while impressive movie experiences, a cruel and unmasked depiction of life in rural China, among people with little or no education, with values and habits rooted in the most basic survival instincts, The story of one of the many girls that were sold as wives, in this case based on a proper con-style kidnapping, as is not unusual even today in China’s South, as is sometimes reported. This one suffers more than her predecessors, because she is rather well-educated, she is stubborn, she is not willing to accept what everybody around her seems to be considering her fate. Resistance, escape… all only extends, and intensifies her suffering. The few people in the village she could consider normal are of no help either, too deeply entangled in the prison of family and Guanxi.  The inevitability of the story line may be the worst to endure – also because it means that parts of the film are kind of superfluous, you know exactly where this is going, and despite its drama, there is a certain hiatus in the middle act, where she is floating quietly towards the story’s climax.

Li Yang has made a film that is not only painful to watch, I imagine that it was also painful to create these often half-improvised scenes with semi-professional actors who seem to be not so far away from the culture and habits they are performing. I am not sure whether this is the closest that you get to a Chinese neo-realism, but if I take the two Li Yang films I have seen (the other one was “Blind Shaft”, which may have been even more painful and maybe even better), and then Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (still one of my favourite films of the last decade), there is a stylistic coherence not just born out of budget limitations, but out of the stylistic requirements these stories bring about. These are dirty, gritty and cruel stories ripped out of one segment of Chinese society, and these films reflect this brilliantly.

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