Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the Festival des Films du Monde: Wang Quan’An’s "Weaving Girl"

in 32nd Montreal World Film Festival

by Michael Ranze

The latest film by Chinese director Wang Quan’an begins with a breathtaking sequence which lasts several minutes – without any cut. A very mobile, smooth steadicam follows a woman who is running angrily through the vast halls and narrow aisles of a textile factory. Hundreds of women are standing here at busy weaving machines whose noises overlap the dialogue. Li Li, the film’s protagonist, is disappointed because her small salary has been docked again – for no good reason. In the heated discussions with fellow workers, who have experienced the same injustice, she tries to understand why. But there is nothing she can do. In the very first minutes of his film Wang Quan’an (who is best known for “Tuya’s Marriage” / Tuya de hun shi which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival in 2007) establishes the theme: the working conditions of common women in an economy which is growing steadily and has become one of the biggest in the world.

This bitter social comment on the marginalization of the working class is underlined by the fact that Li Li has insufficient health insurance. She is diagnosed with an incurable disease. Now she has the choice between several therapies, but ironically she and her husband can’t pay for either of them. To make things worse, Li Li’s husband has lost his job and tries to make a living by selling fish – a job he is not cut out for. In some scenes we see him fighting with customers who behave stubbornly and are self-centred. People in modern China seem – according to Wang Quan’an – to be alienated from one another and only care for themselves.

Now the director combines this highly explosive social and political comment with a personal story of remorse and regret about lost chances in life. Li Li reconciles herself to her mortality and travels – without her husband or her little son – to Beijing. Here she meets Zhao Luhan, a former workmate who has been the love of her life. But ten years ago the man had been transferred to Beijing. Li Li had written a lot of letters to Zhao but never got an answer. Zhao is shocked. He never received any news from her and assumed that she had lost interest in him. Now he is married to another woman.

When we see him for the first time, we see him through the eyes of Li Li who is watching him from the distance for several moments before talking to him: an old man who is tired and resigned. The loss of Li Li ten years ago has destroyed his life. They both try to revive their feelings from the past with a trip to the sea. But the pictures which a Korean couple has taken of them show only two very sad and disappointed individuals. Wang Quan’an never solves the mystery of the lost letters. They only emphasize the fact that people make the wrong decisions, in love or life – a fact that every viewer can relate to, which makes this theme a universal one.

“Weaving Girl” is also a film about a China, which is changing constantly and rapidly. When Li Li searches for Zhao in Beijing she first looks for a factory which doesn’t exist anymore. All she finds is an empty space and a few destroyed houses. Once again, the director emphasises the fact that economic progress leaves behind the individual. With its credibly drawn characters, ambitious script, elegant camera work (by Lutz Reitemeier) and convincing actors, “Weaving Girl” outshone the festival competition in Montreal this year.

Edited by Birgit Beumers