New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 兔子暴力
The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.
Even if they had foregone the ominous flash forward, it would have been obvious that the story of The Old Town Girls was going to end poorly for pretty much everyone involved. There’s an aura of tragic inevitability that suffuses every moment, the sense that all roads lead to doom. That the movie isn’t a dour slog as a result is a tribute to the sterling character work and director Yu Shen’s ability to wring tiny little moments of hope and grace from a story that can really only end one way.
Lost and lonely Shuqing (Teresa) is a pretty much a nonentity both at home and school, standing in the shadow of her more forceful friend Xin Ji (Chai Ye) and the more popular Yueyue (Zhou Ziyue). She quietly envies Xin Ji’s forthright, suffer no fools personalty and the effortless beauty of Yueyue, who moonlights as a teen model. Of course, in cinematic terms that very envy is the surest sign that their lives aren’t as idyllic as they seem, and that all sorts of troubling revelations are about to come out.
The catalyst for all the drama is the return of Shuqing’s biological mother Qting (Wan Qian), a glamorous seeming dancer who abandoned the family for bigger better things long ago. Despite not having seen her since she was an infant, Shuqing seems to be drawn to her immediately after a chance encounter, and it isn’t long before Qting’s reluctance to embrace her motherhood starts to break down in the face of Shuqing’s bottomless adoration.
But in terms of happily ever after, the broken pinky that Qting’s sporting on her right hand doesn’t exactly bode well…
From the opening scene, which appears to be a kidnapping, it’s clear that something is going to go tragically wrong. While that sort of foreshadowing can be dire when mishandled, what follows manages to give what happens in the lead up a sense of poignancy; that is, the moments of joy and connection feel both hard won and all-too-fleeting, and the dread with which we wait to find out the true cost compounds with every passing moment.
While all the performances are all quite good, three stand out in particular: as Xin Ji, Chai Ye skirts a very delicate line between sympathetic and detestable, as her insecurity at losing her friend to her mother brings out some very ugly behavior; for all the tragedy of the ending, the most devastating scene might be the one where Xin conspires to humiliate Shuqing in front of the entire school and finds herself powerless to stop when she realizes she’s finally gone too far.
Also worthy of note is Pan Bing Long (inexplicably billed as Peter Pan in the credits), in the smaller role of Loa Ma, Yueyue’s father, who undergoes a fascinating transformation over the course of his scenes from docile, struggling sad sack to something far scarier.
But of the true MVP of the film, perhaps predictably, is Qian herself as the deadbeat mother whose return sets everything in motion. Qian invests Qting with a dignity that belies her situation, and makes the gradual emergence of her maternal instincts feel perfectly natural. We see her fighting every step of the way not to be swallowed by regret, and the conflict between the person she knows she is and the person she sees in Shuqing’s loving eyes plays out all over her wonderfully expressive face. She’s a marvel.
The Old Town Girls is not a happy story, by any stretch of the imagination. But it succeeds because it remembers something about life that too many stories forget: even in the bleakest of times, there is always hope.