Grammar usually makes titles seem more grandiose. With its titular antiquated timbre and showy comma, you might expect She, A Chinese to be a sort of sweeping national epic — you know, where sword strokes not only carve up enemies, but also sketch out weighty statements on what it means to be “female” and “Chinese.”
Plot-wise, maybe this isn’t too far off: a young Chinese villager leaves home for the big city, and, after a failed romance and an unexpected inheritance, travels to London, where she struggles to make ends meet in a strange new land. But with this globe-hopping material, director Xiaolu Guo has created a film that’s a series of decidedly un-epic vignettes. The scenery and supporting characters change from Chinese to English, and the story dips and arcs with rape, violence, love, and marriage — yet no matter what the subject, Guo frames it the same pleasant way: decoratively. The title’s comma isn’t a dramatic pause; it’s an empty space.
This impossibly even tone nearly mirrors protagonist Li Mei’s (Huang Lu) own unresponsiveness to the world around her. Escaping to her imitation iPod while her father scavenges through landfills for valuables to support his family, boredom with home seems like the impetus for her interest in Europe. Yet when she gets there, she seems uninterested in her new surroundings, even when her activities — like trying to learn English — would suggest otherwise.
Li Mei’s disinterest in all things not herself (notable exceptions: Big Ben and dangerous boys) makes her an unsympathetic character, but it does help her to avoid the mountain of clichés about the immigrant experience in Western society. She leaves for England on a whim in a moment of grief, not out of economic desperation, and the country offers her few opportunities besides fleeting distraction.
The characters she meets, and the core structure of her journey itself, however, are much more familiar. The men are especially predictable: the sexy and violent gangster love interest; the lonely English widower she quickly enters into a sexless relationship with for money and, presumably, legal residence; the Indian food delivery guy she cheats with, who turns out to be Muslim, misogynistic, and increasingly drawn to fundamentalism. Also familiar, though devoid of cliché, is how Li Mei’s journey mirrors the migration of so many Chinese, resembling the modern history of the country itself: from rural village to the industrial boomtown of Shenzhen, and from there to the international community.
On paper, it sounds like an epic journey, for both Li Mei and China. But neither she nor the film concedes that point. I guess even a poor country girl is unmoved by globalization nowadays. And weirdly, that blank-eyed boredom is the film’s most interesting message.