Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

WOMEN FROM THE LAKE OF SCENTED SOULS (XIANG HUN NU) (China, 1993) ***. Written and directed by Xie Fei. Based on a story by Zhou Daxin. Photography, Bao Xianran. Production design, Ma Huiwu & Wang Jie. Sound, Liu Xianchuan. Music, Wang Liping. Costumes, Zhang Qing & Wei Lianxiang. Cast: Siqin Gaowa, Wu Yujuan, Lei Luosheng, Chen Baoguo. An Arrow release. Subtitles. 106 minutes. Not rated.

The original short story was "The Sesame-Oil Mill by the Pool of the Scented Souls." The original film title was the pedestrian "Sesame Oil-Making Woman." The current title is still a word stretch in English, especially since Western cinema has often favored terse titles, including shorties like "M" by Fritz Lang, "Z" by Costa-Gavras, "Q" by Larry Cohen --followed by Lindsay Anderson's "If..." and the like.

But the West can also run on. Lina Wertmuller made "The End Of The World In Our Usual Bed In A Night Full Of Rain" and "A Joke Of Destiny, Lying In Wait Around The Corner Like A Bandit " The play by Arthur Kopit, later a film, was "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad." And the platinum medal goes to Peter Brooks's "Marat/Sade" whose full title is "The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade."

"Women" is set in a North China village where Xiang (Siqin Gaowa) makes sesame-oil. This is a small pa-and-ma operation, except that pa, whose name is Que, is an older man who married Xian when she was 13 (she had been sold at age 7), an often drunken and wife-abusing lout, and of little help. Matriarchy reigns as Xiang, the Compleat Woman, is the brains and much of the brawn of the outfit. She also cares for her big son Dunzi and her schoolgirl daughter.

Dunzi is a mentally handicapped epileptic with both aggressive and sentimental moments. Now he wants a wife, who, Xiang hopes, might help him in his brain and body. Xiang hires her fifth aunt as a matchmaker, but does not approve of the first choices.

All this comes out in pieces. Early on, a parallel plot has a chic Japanese businesswoman drive to the village to make a deal with Xiang: modernize the sesame-oil equipment, increase production, export to Japan. When money starts rolling in, Xiang's search for a bride sets on pretty Huanhuan (Wu Yujuan) whom Dunzi likes.

With her new influence and purchasing power, Xiang gets rid of an employee who pines for Huanhuan (and vice versa) by naming him director of a new store she opens in the city. And as Huanhuan's peasant parents are heavily in debt, Xiang buys the girl for her boy. This, a repetition of Xiang's own story, is further paralleled to the older woman's story, and elaborated in the telling of Huanhuan's sad marriage.

The notorious "If you're so smart,why ain't you rich?" is answered by Xiang's good fortune in business. But "If you're so rich, why aren't you happy?" is really the crux of the movie. We learn that Xiang has had a secret lover for years, Ren (Chen Baoguo), the local transport boss. He is married, and perhaps the biological father of Zhe, Xiang's daughter. (Oddly, Xiang seems to pops contraceptive pills only when she has to submit to her husband. You wonder how these work).

Ren is nice and affectionate too, except that although he and Xiang are in their early thirties, he decides that "now that we're both past middle age" it is time to end this relationship. Ah, the mysterious East. (Also mysterious, indeed totally unlikely, is the unawareness of this affair in such a tiny community).

"Women" has some sad songs on the soundtrack and shows us a lot of pretty pictures. Though filmically quite competent, the leisurely moving movie is no great addition to the art of cinema. The interest here is the human drama -- very well performed-- combined with revealing ethnographic, political and neo-capitalist aspects.

Not once is the word "communism" mentioned, yet "Women" is politically correct and "safe." The Japanese delegates represent the modernity, luxury and sophistication of today's business --which is desirable. But in other ways, there are also warnings about the immorality of Western ways (which means Japan in this case), notably the business equivalent of Hollywood's casting couch. A female Japanese professional takes for granted that to keep her job she has to sleep with her boss. She shrugs off Xiang's shock at this revelation.

Sergei Eisenstein's 1929 Soviet movie "The General Line," about the advantages of collectivization, is also called "The Old and the New." That could also be the second title for "Women" in two ways. First by reversing the Russian film's values as it makes its China-in-transition pitch for private initiative. Second by contrasting industrial-era modernism with tradition.

At film's start you can hardly tell if it takes place now or in earlier days. It takes a bit to see cars and a bustling city with luxury hotels. At the same time, the male villagers get their entertainment from a show-boat with a traditional singer, and get their frustrations from forbidden sex-videos that never arrive.

The title refers to a legend of drowned lovers. The movie's regular returns to, and use of, the lake seem to telegraph a symbolic, premonitory message. Surprisingly, it ends on a rather different note.

At the 1993 Berlin Festival, the Chinese "Women" and the Taiwanese "The Wedding Banquet" were co-winners of the top prize, The Golden Bear.