Monday, February 08, 2016

SBIFF ’16: She Walks

You would think French immigration has more dangerous illegals to worry about than Chinese street walkers—and perhaps they do. Still, any extra attention is dangerous for Lin Aiyu. Keenly aware of her precarious position, Lin will try to work the only angle left to her when she is pulled into some dodgy underworld dealings in Naël Marandin’s She Walks (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Lin once worked as a maid for a snobby, established French-Chinese family, but like many of her street walking colleagues, she tired of the rigid control and meager pay. She now sends home a small remittance each month, scrimped from her work as an off-the-books home care-giver and the tricks she turns during the day. While she prefers the current arrangement (despite the obvious hazards), she no longer has legal standing to remain in France. Nonetheless, old Monsieur Kieffer is quite fond of Lin and her daughter Cherise, but it is his son who controls the purse-strings.

One fateful morning, Daniel Alvès, the sleazy neighbor across the street, forces his way into Kieffer’s flat behind the startled Lin. Initially, he promises to only stay one day, but he soon settles into the storeroom. As they can clearly see, groups of thugs are constantly giving his place a good turning over. Eventually, Lin gives him an ultimatum. He can continue to stay, but he must agree to marry her, thereby granting her legal status. However, Lin is determined to keep their bargain a secret from Cherise, just as she does with her prostitution sideline.

Without question, Marandin conceived She Walks with the best of intentions, but he needed someone to edit out the awkwardness (and unintentional irony) of his press bio, which states the film was “inspired by his reaching out to Chinese women working as prostitutes in Paris.” Reaching out, was he? Be that as it may, She Walks never exploits its female cast members. Inevitably, there are several graphic sex scenes, but they are the sort that will turn off reasonably healthy viewers, rather than heating them up.

Clearly, Marandin also forged a high degree of trust with his lead, Lan Qui. She carries the film with an extraordinarily brave and revealing performance. Physically and emotionally, she opens herself up to the audience, holding back nothing. It is quiet, deeply grounded work, yet raw as anything you’ve seen. In fact, the entire ensemble of Chinese street walkers is quite exceptional. They are funny and earthy, still attractive but convincingly weathered by life. Listening to them banter and gossip is really the only respite Marandin offers us, because She Walks is otherwise unremittingly downbeat and pessimistic.

Of course, a depressing film is still well worth seeing, if it is well made and there is a point to all the misery it rubs our nose in. That is definitely true for She Walks. We do sympathize wholeheartedly with the exploited Chinese women, who collectively do not represent a fraction of the threat posed by a lone Islamist Isis sympathizer. It is also significant as a French film allowing an Asian women a starring role. Lan Qui fully capitalizes on the moment, making an indelible impression. Cate Blanchett’s embarrassing Joan Crawford shtick in Carol looks like amateur hour compared to her. Recommended for mature audiences, She Walks screens this Wednesday (2/10) and Friday (2/12), as part of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.