Before the Flood [STONEWALLING]


Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Huang Ji & Otsuka Ryuji

In an early scene from Stonewalling, co-directed by wife-husband duo Huang Ji & Otsuka Ryuji, the main character Lynn (Yao Honggui), who works in various modeling and hostess gigs while studying to become a flight attendant, recites the phrases “forty is forty,” “fourteen is fourteen,” “forty isn’t fourteen” to herself over and over. In Mandarin, these words (sì shí shì sì shí, shí sì shì shí sì, sì shí bú shì shí sì), while foundational in and of themselves, combine to form a rather potent tongue-twister, one that Lynn, who grew up speaking Hunanese, uses to improve her grasp of the dominant Mandarin dialect, any extra asset to assist in her hireability, though she declines to practice her English.

Stonewalling is suffused with such delicate balances of identity that reflect wider socioeconomic concerns. It is the third part of a trilogy with Egg and Stone (2012) and The Foolish Bird (2017) — the first directed by Huang solo, while all three are lensed by the Japanese-born Otsuka — a triptych following Yao’s character from the age of 14 to 20 and her parents (played by Huang’s own father and mother). I haven’t seen the first two films, whose narrative linkages seems fairly secondary to Stonewalling‘s concerns, but they all deal with the particular struggles faced by young women in a rapidly changing China. And those struggles are especially particular here: the film takes place over the course of Lynn’s unexpected pregnancy; first intending to get an abortion, she instead decides to carry her child to term so that her mother (who runs a woman’s clinic) can offer it as compensation to a patient who lost her own child.

This set-up gestures towards Stonewalling‘s most pressing interest: the commodification of the body, how one’s personal being is turned into just another item for the market, objectified in multiple senses of the word and evaluated according to strict parameters. Much of the film thus unfolds as almost a series of vignettes, as Lynn passes from gig to gig, crossing back and forth from her parents’ home in the suburbs of Changsha to the big city, continually trying to sustain herself amidst a climate of uncertainty and fraud, most clearly typified by her mother’s participation in a multi-level marketing scam involving a healing cream. The effect is in many ways akin to an ambitious cross-section of a certain aspect of the Chinese marketplace, continually finding new manifestations and outgrowths of a fundamental imbalance in society.

But what makes Huang and Otsuka’s approach much greater than a simple exposé of the dire state of modern China and/or capitalism in general is the middle ground they find. Mostly shooting in static long shots, the pace of their scenes unfurls with a great sense of consideration, refusing to lean into the outrageousness of any moments and instead letting it emanate from the material. This especially comes to pass during a crucial job that finds Lynn supervising a group of women potentially slated to donate their eggs to wealthy clients; all young, attractive, and told to behave in certain ways, their job interviews take place with exactly the level of discomfort one might expect without ever becoming overbearing. (It’s also worth noting that there are a few Uyghur women in this group, though it’s not a thread that is this film’s place to explore further).

Throughout this, Lynn’s sense of drift and displacement remains pronounced, not the least because of her fraught, distant relationship with her parents and her boyfriend, the latter of whom disappears for most of the film because of her concealment of her decision to carry her child. And this all reaches full tilt with a shockingly vivid recreation of the early days of the pandemic, something which is evoked as a disruption to the rhythms of life, a further elaboration on Stonewalling‘s interest in the body’s role amidst the masses blown up to national and then global scales. Without saying too much further, the ending suddenly hammers home the sadness and personal ties that bind, only hinted at before and which suddenly come home to roost. The elegance of its conceit, the suddenly bursting emotions that swell amidst immense loneliness, feels so attuned to its character’s journey, something which makes the quotidian rhythms all the more potent.