The Unclean Business of Child Adoptions By Leif Joley

in 10th Kerala International Film Festival

by Leif Joley

While not exactly an everyday issue for most people to reflect upon, child adoption seems to have emerged as the theme of the moment for filmmakers who want to explore the human urge to exploit and to make quick and not-so-earnest and not-so-clean money. This year’s Cannes winner, Belgium brothers Dardennes L’enfant, dealt with this subject, as did two films showcased at this winter’s Kerala International Film Festival in Trivandrum , southern India : French veteran Bertrand Tavernier’s Holy Lola (a 2004 outing, still waiting for wide-spread international release) and Chinese director Li Shaohong’s Stolen Life – the latter a strong contender for the FIPRESCI award since it was featured in competition (although the prize finally went to fellow Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan for Kekexili: Mountain Patrol; Li Shaohong’s movie didn’t came empty-handed from Kerala, though, as the international jury – headed by the aforementioned Mr Tavernier, no less – handed over its main award to his effort).

All three productions focus on different sides of the issue, and aside from the most obvious victim in a more or less criminal adaptation situation – the defenceless infant, who’s treated as a merchandise – it’s interesting to see if anyone else could be regarded as a victim. The Dardenne’s film goes for the young, outcast father, who – without the knowledge of his partner – sells the offspring to faceless child smugglers to get an amount of extra cash besides what he can make from stealing and social support, then regrets what he has done and tries to clean up his act. Tavernier’s victims are a French couple who travel to Cambodia and find themselves systematically robbed by corrupt bureaucrats and others who try to use childless westerners as banking-machines; the apparently well-researched and informative Holy Lola benefits from an intriguing subtext about a somewhat back-fired globalization: frequent adoptions could perhaps be a way to tie France and Cambodia closer to each other, but the latter mentioned nation use its own orphans as a tool to punish the former colonial power, as an instrument for a perverse pay-back.

The global perspective isn’t apparent in Stolen Life, which activates elements from both the morality tale and the horror show when it depicts the story of young female University student Yan-ni (played, and played very well, by Zhou Xun) who is seduced by seemingly friendly and a bit passive boyfriend Muyu who turns out to have a hidden, and very arresting, agenda: he is, in fact, a serial-impregnator who successively sell off his newly-born children to unsuspecting couples; when these deals are closed, he decide it’s time to break up with his partner – only to move on to another woman to inseminate.

This is a well-stitched plot – one might consider it a little far-fetched wasn’t it for the fact that it’s actually based on true events. The acting makes it all plausible, and Li Shaohong’s piercing direction, stylish and edgy with wrenched imagery and industrial music and hammering noises on the soundtrack, keeps the action going smoothly, and the action goes underground, deeper and deeper, as most of the film is located in the shady and sleazy Beijing basement where Yan-ni and Muyu are housed. The production design choices seem a bit too obvious and self-conscious, but the script is dense and has an elegant cyclic shape. Stolen Life doesn’t say anything valuable about the Chinese birth control, though, or – for that matter – the barbaric preferences for baby boys, which might have made the film even more complex (this could be, of course, due to the fact that the film is set in the metropolis of Beijing , not in the rural parts of China). As an official Chinese release, the movie could be read as a warning-sign, aimed at a young female audience: a request to the female students of China to be diligent in school and not fool around.