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Little Trouble in Big China

The-crossing-movie-review-guo-chun-tian-huang-yao
Berlin International Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
The Crossing (2019)

Peipei (Huang Yao) turns 16 the day “The Crossing” starts. She lives in Shenzhen, a port city in southern China, but goes to school in Hong Kong. This means morning and night she must cross – by herself - the international border. Her father (Liu Kai Chi) lives in the shipyard where he works, and her mother (Ni Hongjie) is a party girl who only pays attention to her hangovers and her friends. But, in spite of all that, Peipei is a good kid. Since this is the instant she’s old enough, after school she gets a job as a waitress; but when a customer complains that’s the end of that. She’s desperate for independence, not least because her wealthy best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) has been planning for them to take a trip to some hot springs in Japan for some time.

One day the girls cut school to go to a party on a boat in the harbor. Peipei accepts a dare and jumps into the water despite being unable to swim. She’s saved from drowning by Jo’s boyfriend, Hao (Sunny Sun), but obviously it kind of spoils the vibe. Jo gets drunk and the boys carry her off, leaving Peipei alone on the dock. She is going through the crossing when some of the boys from the party are chased past her by border patrol. They are caught, but not until after they’ve shoved a bag into her hands.

It holds four mobile phones. Peipei sets them out on her bed and considers. And after she receives a phone call, a chance makes itself obvious.

It is a chance, you see. Hao and his friends work for Sister Hua (Kong May Yee Elena), an elegant woman with a blue bob who runs her team of young smugglers like Wendy with the Lost Boys. Peipei is always making herself useful, scooping leaves from Jo’s pool or repacking phones at Sister Hua’s. The appeal of Sister Hua and her gang is obvious in comparison to her lonely life at home and at school. So it feels quite natural Peipei would start smuggling phones across the border herself. After all, she does it all the time anyway, has the requisite freedom of movement, and really needs the cash. Jo doesn’t know about any of it, at first. She lives in a gigantic house built with remissions from an auntie who works in a Galway, Ireland, chip shop. Hao also cooks in a noodle shop, and when Peipei stops by to see him he puts her to work waiting tables. But even when the penny drops about Peipei and Hao, Jo doesn’t notice they have extra money; of course, since she has so much of it, she doesn’t need to.

And while Ms. Soup is very good in a thankless part, Ms. Huang carries the movie with ease, not least when she is thinking. Peipei is self-contained, and rarely shows fear, even when surrounded by a clamoring group of men in a market as she tries to get a damaged phone repaired before the last bus. Peipei has a calm confidence of herself we don’t often see in a teenage girl onscreen. You can tell a female director, in how the camera gives her space even as it circles around her, made this. The style also shows how Peipei is used to being on her own and out of place. There’s something about her willingness to move around by herself in these risky places that makes the others go a little easy. They still aren’t kind, of course; multiple characters make snide comments and threats to her face that are worse than a slap. But while her dream of the trip to Japan wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without Jo’s encouragement, it was her dream in the first place. Her feelings for Hao are a surprise to her, especially since her loyalty to Jo comes first, but Mr. Sun projects such decency we can easily see why Peipei trusts him, and how Hao’s sense of responsibility shifts into more. Eventually they’re able to let their guard down with each other, and we all know what that means.

There have not been many movies built around how a young woman chooses her career; the one with the most, although childish, parallels is “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” First-time director Bai Xue is working along the lines of Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” and Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar” to analyze how a solitary young woman finds her way in a risky world where trust is rarer than love. The movie’s ability to follow Peipei’s moods makes up for the slightly sluggish pacing. The use of the freeze frames also wasn’t needed, but the jittery camerawork was – you get a real sense of teenage energy and enthusiasm as well as the relentless ground-level busyness of the cities. But cinematographer Piao Songri tops himself in the penultimate scene between Peipei and Hao, where a red glow suffuses a sweltering warehouse as they tape mobile phones to their stomachs and discuss whether it’s ever possible to be truly cold. It crackles with heat in more ways than one.

Despite that outstanding warehouse scene, which is worth the price of admission, the film goes on for a few scenes too long and undercuts the surprising finale. Ms. Bai should have trusted us to understand what it means. But these minor quibbles don’t take away from how well “The Crossing” delivers.

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