JOAN CHEN, the actor best known for her roles in "The Last Emperor" and television's "Twin Peaks," has gone behind the camera. This is good news, I'm sure. The title of her new movie, "Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl," is a clumsy mouthful, but it's nicely photographed, well directed and has two delicate lead performances from Lu Lu and Lopsang.
The movie, which was filmed in Tibet without official permission from the Chinese government, has received a few blessings, too.
The 1999 Paris Film Festival gave the movie the Special Jury Award, and the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival awarded "Xiu" the prize for Best Dramatic Feature. But the story, which Chen and Yan Geling adapted from Geling's novella, "Tian Yu," isn't exactly what you'd call pick-me-up material. My personal choice for a title? "Life is Utterly Horrible."
Wen Xiu (Lu Lu), whose nickname is Xiu Xiu, is a sweet, playful girl in the Chinese city of Cheng-du during China's Cultural Youth Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The Maoist government is forcing its youthful masses to forsake university study for rigorous training programs in distant parts of the country, so Xiu Xiu enlists for horse training on the plains of Tibet, so she can be chosen as a member of the Girls Iron Cavalry.
She's dispatched to a desolate mountain camp under Lao Jin (Lopsang), an old trainer who was rendered a eunuch during a savage tribal attack many years before. Lao Jin is the salt of the earth, a taciturn soul who develops an unspoken devotion to this chaste young girl. He builds her an ingenious bath on the mountaintop. He brings her water. He doesn't even mind that she seems unconcerned about training horses.
But as the seasons change, Xiu Xiu becomes increasingly depressed that no one has sent for her. A scheming peddler (Gao Qiang) informs her the cavalry unit no longer exists. The only way she can return to Cheng-du, he assures her, is to establish personal contacts with each and every clerk and official who can facilitate her reentry. Assuming he is well connected, the trusting Xiu Xiu submits to the stranger's physical needs. He leaves. He does not return.
Over time, more men come visiting with the same treacherous agenda. And while Lao Jin winces quietly in the background, Xiu Xiu's spirit becomes increasingly defeated.
There is an affecting partnership between Lu Lu and Lopsang; the latter is particularly effective with his pained, stoic facial expressions. And cinematographer Lu Yue (who has filmed many Zhang Yimou pictures, including "Shanghai Triad") creates some striking images. Xiu Xiu's misery at least gets a pristine, starry backdrop. But the story stays in a nasty rut of horror, without building any dimension. What is this story telling us, other than my suggested title? Beats me. Ultimately, the greatest thing about this film is that the suffering only lasts 99 minutes.
XIU XIU THE SENT DOWN GIRL (R, 99 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes and nudity. In Chinese with English subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3.
CAPTION: Lu Lu portrays Xiu Xiu, who is gradually worn down by the bleakness of her life.