Martyred Heroines By Josefina Sartora

in 42nd Chicago International Film Festival

by Josefina Sartora

Our jury’s second choice in the New Directors Competition was Grain in Ear (Mang Zhong), Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu’s minimalist melodrama. The film had been presented at Cannes, and had won the Grand Prize at the 2005 Pesaro Film Festival, Italy.

Grain in Ear focuses on a Korean woman living in China, and in a certain way on Korean-as-minority in Chinese society. Cui is alone with her child. While her husband is in jail she struggles as an illegal seller of kim-chi, a Korean vegetable she prepares and sells on the streets in the edges of an industrial zone. She lives in a derelict building which stands abandoned near train racks, along the run-down edges of an unnamed city. Her neighbors are a group of young prostitutes, with whom she shares a difficult life. Even though Cui meets a policeman, and another Korean–Chinese man who becomes her lover, and both try to help her, their relationships end in treason and humiliation, and Cui seems destined for hopelessness. Her child’s sudden death accentuates her desperation even further and pushes her towards a tragic revenge.

Although previously a novelist, Zhang Lu supports his story with images, rather than words. The action is developed through long still shots with little dialogue. These fixed shots create a tense and latent atmosphere, as they show the hardness of her situation, and the impossibility of change. Cui is, as was her husband, a prisoner of her fate. Zhang works as a painter, dramatically using a palette of primary colors. His still compositions always show open doors, thresholds, gateways to another place, where action occurs, hidden from sight, giving a strong weight to what happens outside our field-of-vision. Only on the last shot does the camera dare move, following the protagonist in her errant walk, as she leaves her place and heads to nowhere in particular, in an open ending, characteristic of many of the films in the New Directors Competition (Nordeast, Low Profile, Pale Eyes, The Moustache).

The main character of Grain in Ear and her friends the prostitutes are members of a group of suffering women, common to this film section at the Chicago Festival. These new heroines are beings who cannot fit in, who are shaken by society or their family, and who struggle with their tragic fate. Cui is one; another is the mother who struggles alone with her child in Nordeeast. Or the lonely, wandering psychotic woman in Pale Eyes. There is also the tormented young woman in black who doesn’t find her place in the world in Poet of the Wastes, the young maid in Play, who is obsessed with identity confusion, and finally the silent, uncommunicative wife in Guernsey, who is suffering a personal crisis with her entire family.

In one unique scene Cui’s sad facial expression changes: when she is teaching Korean dancing to a police woman who had given her a license to sell food. Actress Liu Lianji’s exquisite grace in that simple expression transmits the pleasure of that very moment, fulfilled by that unique, almost happy and relaxing time.