Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1998) Poster

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A beautiful and brutal film
Dennis Littrell20 June 2002
Joan Chen, who has had a modest career as an actress in American films and TV, makes her directorial debut here in this brutal, poignant and beautiful Mandarin language film. Starring Lu Lu as Xiu Xiu, a teenaged girl from the city sent to the country during Mao's cultural revolution, and Lopsang as Lao Jin, a castrated Tibetan nomad who is to teach her horse husbandry, Tian yu is not so much an indictment of communist China as it is an indictment of human nature. Xiu Xiu is brutalized by small-minded bureaucratic males as has happened throughout human history, be they communist or feudal, her innocence and youth traded for an apple, her buoyant hope for life dashed by blind political and economic forces, and her self-respect stolen from her by the twisted logic of rape and lust.

What elevates this story above what we have seen many times before is the striking beauty of the Tibetan countryside and the fine characterizations of both Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin. Lao Jin is a "gelding," made fun of by others, a man of quiet disposition who falls in love with his beautiful young charge, but stands aside because of his impotence. Xiu Xiu has an imperial nature natural to favored girls everywhere, be they Japanese "princesses" or American "valley girls," a nature very well depicted by the script and very well acted out by Lu Lu, whose delicate beauty and spicy temperament clash well with Lao Jin's Taoist stoicism. At one point he remarks wisely that "every place is the same," meaning of course that it is what we bring to the place that really matters. But his wisdom is completely lost on the teenaged girl who wants and needs society and all that it has to offer. And so, the underlying "love affair" between the two can never be...except...as it is in the end.

Lopsang's performance is entirely convincing and Lu Lu is fascinating to watch. Joan Chen did a fine job with both of them while managing to keep politics and political agendas in the background. She concentrated on the human tragedy and made it universal. Both of her central characters had flaws that in some way led to the great sadness that they experienced, and yet they were not to blame. In this naturalistic expression we are reminded of the tragedies of novelists Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser; and of course Chen was influenced by the work of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, in particular his sad, but captivating Raise the Red Lantern (1991) in which a beautiful girl is consumed and brutalized by societal forces of a different nature.

This film misses being a masterpiece because of a hurried resolution leading to an ending that needed a bit more shaping. Nonetheless this is an arresting and compelling drama, beautifully filmed and sensitively directed.

But be forewarned. "Celestial Bath" is a disturbing film not easily shaken from the mind.

(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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To Have and Have Not
lou-5031 July 1999
Director Joan Chen has fashioned a lovely, slow-moving film, "Xiu Xiu - the Sent Down Girl" about the abuses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of one girl, Xiu Xiu. Yet the film is more than a tale about the misguided totalitarian state and its pervasive influence on everyone's lives. "Xiu Xiu" is also about a special relationship between the girl and her mentor and protector, Jao Lin. It would be an oversimplification to call it a love story because the film only hints at any romance between the two (Xiu Xiu spends much of the film in contempt of Jao). Indeed their contrasting lives could not be more pronounced. Jao Lin is a horse herder, a man of the soil, one who cleans himself when it rains, and a victim of a castration leaving him without his manhood. The much younger girl, Xiu Xiu, is from the modern city, doing her duty until she can return to her loving family and to a boy who yearns for her; she with the soft, innocent smile, and the daintiness to appreciate a kaleidoscope or a freshly dug waterhole. They must live together in one tent for six months because ‘headquarters' has mandated that Xiu Xiu learn horse herding. While adapting to each other's needs, Xiu Xiu seems to have the upper hand on Lao (she bosses him around like a hired hand) but there is a strange, intuitive feeling between them that is really not appreciated until the very last scene. As the story develops, six months have passed and Xiu Xiu still cannot return home because her family is too poor to bribe officials to take her back. At the heart of this film is the evil that those in power do to those who are too weak to fight them. Men from ‘headquarters' regularly have sex with Xiu Xiu, sometimes with the frustrated Lao in the same tent, since Xiu Xiu mistakenly assumes these men will help her get back home. All Lao can do is watch because even as he tries to protect Xiu Xiu in other ways, he is powerless to stop what is going on. What develops, slowly but surely, is another side of Lao, besides the father figure - he becomes a man who can touch but cannot possess what he wants. The latter is made clear when Lao steals Xiu Xiu's shoe and then lies to her that a man has come to steal her shoe so that he can return later to tell her of his love. "Xiu Xiu - the Sent Down Girl" succeeds in giving us a poignancy about innocence lost and about the deep meaning of sacrifice and love.
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Sad, affecting, and haunting
tiabmaps12 August 2000
What affected me and haunts me most about Xiu Xiu is the character of Lao Jin and his tender, sexless love and caring for Xiu Xiu. He does his best to make her life easier in a place that she hates, and his pain and frustration mount as he sees how she is destroying herself. His deep, sincere, and inarticulate caring for her touched me profoundly. I wished that a romantic love could develop between them (and I am not generally into movie romances -- very few of them really work for me) but that was out of the question from the beginning, since Lao Jin was castrated. That very fact gave their relationship a sense of tragedy from the beginning.

I would love to see more of this Tibetan actor, Lobsang. Imdb info shows this movie as his only film credit.

The locale was spectacular and gorgeously photographed. Only intellectually could I understand Xiu Xiu's dislike of such a gorgeous place (as well as her lack of appreciation for Lao Jin's caring for her). But both characters were very believable and involving, and this sad movie will stay with me for a long time.
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Extremely moving and beautiful
Twon-ha23 April 2001
This movie is truly incredible on many fronts. Firstly, the story is incredibly moving and powerful, without any schmaltz and the heavy-handed preaching about who's "right" and who's "wrong" that most Hollywood films resort to. Most of the film examines the relationship between Xiu Xiu and the Tibetan herder she is forced to live with as part of her "re-education". The acting throughout is superb, with the two leads delivering subtle yet powerful performances. The photography and settings are breathtaking, and I didn't find the music intrusive at all...
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MusicalAnime8 September 2004
I love this movie... It's such a sad film. It's sad enough to speak of love for such sad things. It starts off so pretty and happy. Such bright colors, pretty sky... then everything just changes. The colors never change, it is always pretty outside.. but the nights are what makes it sad. It made me feel angry of all the things that went wrong in this film... i wanted to be there, to help somehow... everything in this film is done so artisicly. The end of the movie is a perfect way to end sorrow. There is no better way to end something, than to simply end it. I recommend it to all who want to be touched. This is something that will never be done again. Nothing else like it. 10/10 for this one.
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A remarkable first feature from Joan Chen
Acorn-227 August 1999
Xiu Xiu is a beautifully made movie in which Joan Chen combines sumptuous visual imagery, a beautiful, delicate musical score, fine performances by her actors and a spare and intelligent script to produce a simple, moving story of two lost lives.

The movement of the story from the dark confines of the tent Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin share to the almost limitless prairies and big skys of the Tibetan highlands follows the emotional pulse of the film. Expert camera work creates perspectives that sweep from the touchingly intimate to the overwhelmingly vast, exploring the characters from inside and out.

Wonderful, economical performances from newcomer Lu Lu and Tibetan stage veteran Lopsang give profound and touching insight into the extraordinariness of two ordinary people. Chen saves the story from descent into melodrama by a precise and thoughtful restraint that respects, observes, and never intrudes to seek to "explain" or apologize.

A film worth going out of one's way to see.
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A tale of unimaginable brutality.
virglvf9914 February 2000
Though there was the usual disclaimer at the end regarding persons living or dead, this film has an undeniable authentic feel.

The Tibetan country-side is at once breathtaking and desolate; a perfect setting for a tale of unimaginable brutality. Far from overwhelming the movie, the music underscores Chen's theme of suffering and injustice visited upon young Chinese girls who were separated from their families and sent to places unknown, never to be heard from or seen again; young girls who were in effect disappeared. This is a film that will stay with me for a long time to come.
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More shots of clouds than any movie in history
Karma-1529 June 1999
Warning: Spoilers
Xiu Xiu is a scathing look at communism in China, focusing on the story of a 15-year-old girl who is sent down to the countryside during the last years of the Chinese Revolution (1967-76). The girl works at hard labor and is gradually used by a string of powerful men who accept sex from her in exchange for promises that they have no intention of fulfilling.

Filmed in remote reaches of Tibet, the scenery is beautiful, even all those shots of the clouds that director/producer/writer Joan Chen seems to love. The relationship that develops between the girl and an older horsehearder who was "deprived of his manhood" by Tibetan rebels also is sweet and properly understated. It's clear he loves her and wishes he wasn't powerless to protect her.

However, the story is uneven. Still, it's worth seeing -- if nothing else, it's interesting to see a movie that's been banned in the country in which it was made.
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Beautifully executed, but with a slight flaw at ending
shotenshinbou23 May 2001
This was a truly beautiful film. Joan Chen has directed a movie of uncommon grace, beauty, and sensitivity. She has a subtle hand and an eye for imagery that are almost unrivaled in the movie industry. The two lead actors delivered flawless and engaging performances (and that saying quite a bit considering how little dialogue is exchanged). I really enjoyed watching these three masters displaying their craft.

My only reservation about this movie (here comes a vague plot give away, but it's about the end of the of the movie, so watch out) is that Xui Xui's reaction at the very, very end of the movie seemed psychologically inconsistent with how her character had been developed.
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Pleasant movie about harsh life under communism
FilmCriticLalitRao9 August 2007
Tian Yu directed by veteran Chinese actress Joan Chen is a bold film which is completely different both in style as well as content from those of other Chinese films made by fifth and sixth generation film makers.Soon after its filming its anti Chinese communist party stance had angered the Chinese cultural authorities to such an extent that it is still banned in China.Much of the film's strength lies in its choice of far off landscapes which add surreal beauty to the film.The film is sad as a young girl is sent away from her home to initiate a communist party sponsored reeducation process but she becomes a victim of sexual slavery.This is a real story which underscores not only the plight of the film's protagonist but also of countless ordinary girls whose happiness was snatched by the official brutality of the omnipotent communist party ideology.Top notch scenes of the film include sequences in which the young protagonist is forced to live in a far off settlement with a Tibetan eunuch.This unexpected event gives rise to emotional bonding between two people cut off from human civilization.
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Very powerful and exquisitely acted; 9/10
zetes7 January 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Xiu Xiu: the Sent Down Girl is probably a lot like you might expect. We in America only really get to see one or two types of Chinese films. This film is a lot like Zhang Yimou's films like To Live, Du Jou, and Raise the Red Lantern. Zhang could easily have directed this tragic film. But that's not a reason to criticize it. It is quite a great film. It starts off very slowly, but by the time Xiu Xiu moves in with the horse breeder Lao Jin, the film becomes great. Their relationship is the heart of the film, and it is difficult to find two better performances than those of Lu Lu and Lopsang. Xiu Xiu has been sent to study horse breeding. At first she is nervous about living with a strange man. He was castrated when he was younger, she is told. Lao Jin develops strong feelings for Xiu Xiu, as well as she does for him, but there isn't much they can do about it. Eventually, a young man comes around and tells Xiu Xiu he has influence to get her back home. She had come there with a bunch of other young girls and boys with an internship-type program. It failed, and everyone else went home months ago. In exchange for his help, Xiu Xiu gives him sex. He leaves, and, in a couple of weeks, another man shows up at the tent looking for sex. Lao Jin can do nothing but watch helplessly.

The film is very tense and moving. My main problem, besides the slowness of the beginning, is that the final sequence is perhaps too melodramatic.


The prevaling undercurrent of the film is the love story between Lao Jin and Xiu Xiu. Of course, since nothing can happen, it is impossible. His pain comes from the fact that Xiu Xiu is destroying her own honor. He wants so badly to protect that. There is another undercurrent that should be there but I never felt: I wish Lao Jin felt angrier at the fact that Xiu Xiu would rather degrade herself and, eventually, die than live out her life with him as a horse breeder. I wish he would have objected at the end verbally. It's insulting, and his own suicide should have been caused by that insult rather than the fact that his beloved is dead.
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Concise yet haunting
goaglen23 January 2000
I have watched movies from China for many years, dating to the early martial arts films from (ca.) 1950's. This work is one of the finest, most coherent, focused, and most beautifully rendered. I trust that Joan Chen will continue writing and directing.

The plot and scene pallet were simple, leaving room for the excellent acting and poignant cinematography to show. Character development was superb. The film did not need the lecturing normally reserved for the poorly done party films of the period described. And, of course, the story provides a glimpse into the humanity of the Chinese people, in that system, without polish, making a subtle link to other human beings.

If this is the Joan Chen who showed Yang form to an American on Washington Square in April, 1985 and who consulted with the same one at "Taste of China," 1988, I would appreciate a note. Last known address was New York, 1988.
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Sent to the Sticks to Learn
tedg3 November 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

Joan Chen is a lovely woman who went to the Chinese outback to learn how ordinary people think visually. So she makes a film about a lovely girl sent to the Chinese outback to learn how ordinary people think agriculturally.

The girl ends up feeling she has to prostitute herself to find her way back home. And so with Ms Chen, and as with the girl, we the viewer get some superficial pleasure.

This is a simple film, and one can see that it was made by someone with an actor's sensibility. The story is extremely economical, so much so that the camera is anchored to the actors. Every shot is an actor's shot: either to place the actor in a scene or to show the actor acting. The one exception is a rather heavihanded cloud metaphor. This works because the project has such low ambition, but it has the effect of abstracting the story so much we just don't care.

A more experienced filmmaker might work at defining the situation, setting up some complex dynamics in the world and then placing some characters within those dynamics. That way we watch them in a context that we understand. Bertolucci did that with `The Last Emperor' in which Ms Chen worked as one of those actors responding to their environment. Here, she has it the other way around. We still get the wilderness, the political idealism and associated petty tyrants. But they are the the other way around, what our heroine sees. We, through our surrogate the camera eye, never see the bigger picture.

In a sense, this is a `Taxi Driver' bet, a first film where we get things through one character's mind. It worked for Scorsese because he was fearless in putting us on the edge. This project was clearly designed that way, like `taxi' with the edge being in the sexual exploitation of a young girl. But Ms Chen backs away when the chips are down. Some more visual pain, more explicit images, more of a linkage of loneliness to the environment (for example in the Bertolucci `Sheltering Sky').

So what we end up with is a small film where everything seems competent but nothing works quite right. She followed this up with the very similarly conceived `Autumn in NY.' Prostitution in the name of getting home. Sad.

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 4: Has some interesting elements.
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Caution: Extremely Powerful
equiart25 June 2003
This is a very powerful movie about a very important and real subject. It made its point very forcefully with the use of strong and explicit scenes that I'm afraid have been with me ever since I watched this movie and promise to appear in my mind day and night for quite some time. I hate to say that I wish I hadn't seen a well-made movie, but that is the case here. If you are very emotionally affected by movies like I am, I recommend that you pick up a good book about the history of sexual politics in China instead.
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No less than a wonder
Cristi_Ciopron21 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
It is,in a certain way, almost strange to write something about this movie, now, so long after I have really admired it, so long after I have so intensely cherished it.

XIU—XIU might be described as a small—scale romantic—naturalistic synthesis. It has gusto, flair and pace. It has suavity, and visions of hell. It is very coherent, limpid and well—constructed. The directorial approach is sober and incisive.

It is deliberately heartbreaking and shocking and sensationally lyrical, of extreme emotional density ,a remarkable experience of art, of rich emotions; and, although not decadent in itself, it strongly appeals to decadent sensibilities and receptivity. (I thought it was good in a Rozanov/Bloy/ Nietzsche way, as I was able then to define the sphere of perception.) It treated highly, in a dignified perspective ,of humble things, elemental feelings and atrocious events. It played like the sum-ma of a certain art.

Mainly on its base, I have formulated, or rather improvised, a quite decadent theory, the idea of the cruel, savage movie. By this, I meant a kind of lyrical and inspired naturalism, shocking and thrilling, the kind that might be seen in XIU—XIU, in the R. Harris masterpiece This Sporting Life (1963) and in some scenes of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) .

The film has strength and several merits. It is of an explicit beauty. It is a synthesis—a vision of art, a synthetic take. It has a vision of the human life, society, violence, evil, pain. It has a contemplative, quite and slow side. It is beautifully conceived and acted. Its sadness is visceral and piercing. For a time, I thought it better than anything else. During my XIU—XIU era, when I resolutely campaigned for it among my pals, I also liked ED WOOD.

On the viewer's part, XIU—XIU might define an inclination towards finding beauty in its most compact and intense expressions. An aptitude for finding it. XIU—XIU is also an admirably crafted drama, that adds competence to the inspiration' s high aim.
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Too long and boring
A film you either love or hate (according to the feedback in two French Film Festivals), Joan Chen's directorial debut inspires the latter reaction in my view. With so many good Chinese movies about the Cultural Revolution, this is one long, boring one I advise you to skip. The lead actress' performance is outstanding, but not reason enough to waste two hours of your life.
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Beautiful,Moving and Very Sad
soblessed23 April 2004
I just saw this video last night.I mostly enjoyed it. The two main characters are wonderful to watch. The scenery was beautiful. Most of it was very touching,but I would have been happier with less explicit sex scenes. This film definitly held my interest,even though you must read the subtitles. It is a very sad story on two levels.Because of the beautiful young girl's situation and because of her wonderful, but much older castrated mentor's love for her. After seeing "The Shower" and now this film, I am developing an appreciation and interest for Chinese films. For those who don't mind reading subtitles in a good foreign film, I don't think this will dissapoint many.
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Sickening trash (vague spoiler)
hyena-128 October 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Vague spoiler ahead. Decent acting, a storyline more depressing than Sylvia Plath, and a few shots of lovely Chinese wilderness do not change the fact that this is basically softcore porn for sadists. If you would enjoy watching a fifteen-year-old get sexually mistreated, this is the movie for you. I am no prude, but this movie has a nihilistic, letcherous feel that in my experience has only been matched by _Kids_. This movie left my wife and me feeling ill - I did not eat dinner after watching this film.
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kenestacio25 September 2001
This movie was wonderful, but terrifically sad (discouraging?) too. Essentially a "you can't go home again" flick: literally, metaphorically, emotionally, spiritually... Acting was superb. Layer upon layer of messages about women, about men, about innocence, about undoing what was done, about voyeurism and exhibitionism, about the human heart and body as both temple and sacrificial lamb... this is an intense film that, while it may justifiably be criticized as another Chinese tragedy, it is superbly executed and HIGHLY recommended.

Complaints: The same music repeats several times; editing less than perfect; the execution of some scenes/ideas are a bit cliché. It moved, from time to time, too slow or too fast here or there, so I couldn't give it 10 stars.
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Hideously Perverse
hddu10-819-3745825 November 2017
There are few films that I would categorize as perverse or disturbing (Salo' would be one, just so we can level-set here). Xiu Xiu is definitely disturbing as well, for many different reasons. Above all, it is the blatant sexualization and exploitation of this VERY young-looking actress. While on the one hand, it is an attempt at portraying the collective insanity of Chinese communism, it really doesn't humanize anyone to the point that we care; it's just an amalgamation of humans who all seem to be trying to either take advantage of each other or be as indifferent as possible. In the end, this almost appears to come off as some sort of fetish film. There are FAR better films about life under Chinese communism ("To Live" is hands-down the gold standard). Despite the scenery, some interesting acting and the realistic historical background, this is just exploitation of a young, naive actress (and in fact, I don't believe she has ever done anything since).
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Heartbreaking film
Mike Garcia5 October 2012
heartbreaking film about the Chinese cultural revolution in the 70's, when young girls were separated from their families and sent away to the remote countryside for manual labors ( A DUMB TRADITION THAT WAS PART OF THE Chinese CULTURAL REVOLUTION).The main character of this film is a 15 year old girl named XIU XIU, who is a victim of the circumstances, someone who relies in the hope of a false promise that will be the path for her destruction. She is sent to live with a man named Lao Jin, who will do everything he can to satisfy her ,he will be witness of the brutality of the corruption of a rotten system, feeling powerless of can do anything for save her.

A beautiful film that progresses until turn into a tale of brutality.
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Great and interesting story
takethiswaltz19 September 2009
In short, a great and interesting movie. At the same time very, very sad. The story of the tragic fate of a girl called Xiu Xiu. Sent to the wildness away from her home, a young and naive, she soon realizes that her only true friend is Lao Jin. Rigid communist regime that destroyed every human spirit, thus her promising life. On the other hand, this movie contains beautiful images of nature, water, sky, horses, flowers and beautiful emotional music. What characterizes this movie is definitely a unique blend of music, images and emotional state in which the characters are. If you want to see a serious story, then the Tian Yu movie is just for you.
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ZivileZab4 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Eastern people are very strange. For my European mind. But my post-sovietic mind can understand the absurd of communism. People are going where the system sends them and think they are doing something very appreciable for others. Well, mostly things like it are useful for those in highest chairs.

A little girl goes to the countryside to help people. She's so innocent and her plaits are a symbol for it. When she's sent to prairies to live with horses breeder Lao Jin for six months she's so shy and afraid he can do something bad to her. But he can't – long time ago his manhood has been sliced off.

After the time she had to go back she's still with Lao in the fields. But she wants go home. And suddenly a man comes and says he can help her. And gives her an apple (symbolic, right?). The next time he comes he wants something from her. And his friends wants the same. They say that's the only one way to go home. Yeah, right...

Lao Jin sees and understands everything, but Xiu doesn't want to hear anything from him. But when „surprisingly" she becomes pregnant Lao is only one who helps her. And in the end the only one who frees her. When she's back to her innocence and plaits.

It's a sad story. And very eastern. Gee, this really could have happened! Stupid system and dickbrained men.
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a movie that definitely stuck with me
B Davis14 May 2006
I saw this movie several years ago.

and have been searching for a copy of it since I finally have more time. really it's a sad story but the overall story is excellent.

I really enjoyed this film more than I can mention just the emotions of serenity and sadness just portrayed are awesome.

and coming to find that it was directed by one of my favorite actresses/directors now. its pretty interesting in itself. well I hope you all enjoy this movie as much as I have. it's a very wonderfully sad movie that makes you wonder.

that's about all I have to say I guess since I have to add a bit more
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Interesting parallels with Million Dollar Baby
clobban7 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Even though Tian yu (Xiu-Xiu) is a deeply moving film, one could sit back complacently thinking that something like this could never happen in America. Yet, Million Dollar Baby shows us that it can. Two excellent films. Of course, the movies are very different in many ways, but I was intrigued by some key parallels. In both, the male lead is an older man who develops a special, non sexual love for the female lead. Both men, for quite different reasons blame themselves for the situations the women eventually find themselves in, and both help in the ultimate solution, at the cost of their own lives. But they are not to blame: in each case society has trapped the women into intolerable situations from which there is ultimately only one escape. The nurse who gloats that "she'll never do that again" after Maggie tries to pull out her life support is no less despicable than the nurses who deride Xiu-Xiu for what she has become, or the men who take advantage of her. We may view the system that forgot Xiu-Xiu as malignant, but it is no less so than the "benign" system that dehumanizes Maggie. Xiu-Xiu is the sort of film one expects to see in human rights film festivals… and what about Million Dollar Baby?
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