The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on what you missed, click here.
If one were to describe Virgin Blue with a neutral term that would nevertheless be enough to scare off a significant share of audiences, I would choose the word languid. This is not a movie with any interest in heading in any particular direction at any particular speed. In that sense, it replicates the feel of the season it’s trying to portray: A lazy, hazy summer with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There’s more to the film than that, but to plumb its depths, one will first require patience.
A whole, whole lot of patience…
Yezi (played by… Yezi) is a 22-year old recent college graduate who spends her last summer before university with her grandmother (Zheng Shengzhi), who is suffering from one of the more benign forms of dementia I’ve seen this festival (must be something in the air this year). She sleeps the days away, though as the summer goes on, her waking moments increasingly don’t feel all that different from her sleeping ones. The world beyond seems to be breaking through, and, well, nothing really changes. But then, sometimes life is just like that.
It’s no spoiler to say that things take a turn for the supernatural; almost from the start, there’s a phantasmagorical affect to the proceedings. And one of the things writer-director Niu Zhouyou does very well is to find ways of seamlessly integrating the commonplace and the esoteric. Call it the spectral quotidian: the idea that there is indeed another world, layered on top of ours, but that its residents are just as aimless and drifting as we are. And Zhouyou manages this with the simplest of tricks: a beam of light with no visible source, shining in broad daylight; a shadow behind a curtain; fruits being tossed from offscreen by unseen entities; a slow pan to a pair of furry hands messing with clocks, unnoticed by the people we know are just out of the camera’s vision.
It’s these straightforward glimpses of otherwise intangible layers of reality that kept me from completely checking out in that first half of the film. The first forty five minutes or so are pokey, to say the least. It’s not an accident that most of the scenes revolve around sleeping, or talking about sleeping, and that Yezi is a sleepwalker; she has leg trouble that has left her with a pronounced limp, and even when she’s awake, her gait and her disposition make her seem almost like an automaton running on slowly decaying programming.
Ironically, the point at which I started to get restless and paused to read the synopsis to get a clue of where this might be going was more or less the exact moment the movie chose to turn over its cards: A bear and a woman who has been serenading Yezi in her sleep with fully choreographed balladry appear to Yezi and explain that they are monsters who live in Yuhua Pond with the ghost of her grandfather, who wants to pay her a visit by the end of the summer.
The reveal of the monsters feels like a defining moment in the sense that up until then, things have just floated on a kind of gossamer air. But Yezi engages the monsters, and we learn that they are directly tied to stories we had heard in passing earlier. And with Grandma’s throwaway mention that her dementia would eventually turn her into a monster, something like a thesis starts to form.
Not that any of this gives the movie any more of a shape or a sense of urgency, but at least it feels like something.
The funny thing is, once the monsters started coming into the story proper, I strangely found myself missing the abstracted nature of the first half; before that, despite my occasional lapses into impatience, I was beguiled by the way the movie worked its subtle magic, blending the everyday and the unearthly. Grandmother’s home felt full of spirits, but in as benign a manner as imaginable—not a haunting, but a house of idle presences.
Which is not to say that the second half doesn’t have moments that I enjoyed on an artistic level; a moment where Yezi realizes the delivery boy who has been bringing her groceries is actually her childhood imaginary friend, and his offhanded explanation of why her grandmother could see him too, is pretty delightful in itself. The director gently arguing with Grandmother in voiceover dialogue is one of several intriguing meta moments, and the perspective from inside a sweater Yezi is struggling to put on is impish in a way the movie could do more with. When I think back to scattered moments, such as another meta moment where we spy on an extra in the distance trying to convince someone that he’s in a movie, I think maybe I’m not giving Virgin Blue enough credit for its sense of playfulness.
Mention also has to be made of the art direction by Yuan Yue. More than once the film cuts to childlike drawings of spirits and monsters, or manga-style representations of Yezi, and some of the imagery on display is simply gorgeous.
It’s not entirely clear if Virgin Blue has much to say in the end, or even if saying anything was of interest to the filmmakers, but the final moments involving Yezi looking directly into the camera are surprisingly haunting, even without an idea of what it’s all supposed to mean. Though it’s not something I would recommend to anyone but the most arthouse-inclined of viewers, there’s definitely something here worth investigating.