The Loess Plateau was once home to China’s most fertile agricultural fields, but the Party has not been a wise steward of the land. Desertification and deforestation have greatly reduced the region’s yields. Unfortunately, that only makes a purchased wife’s hardscrabble life even more difficult in Dutch-based Chinese animator Yi Zhao’s haunting short film Löss (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Ottawa International Animation Festival.
Yulin was sold into a loveless marriage with her brutish subsistence farmer husband. They have been unable to conceive children, leaving him resentful and her without the benefit of more loving company. Her only pleasures are the mud dolls she creates—but they are also a weakness he can exploit to control her. It is a grim domestic life, but unfortunately it is not her only worry.
In many ways, Löss is like an avant-garde animated analog of The Burning Bed, but it depicts an even more dire situation. Simply leaving her husband is not really an option for Yulin, because where we she go? Frankly, she is just as tethered to their crops as he is, which leaves little room for clichéd empowerment themes.
Full of dark foreboding, the deceptively simple style of Yi Zhao’s animation aptly reflects the meanness of Yulin’s life and the depths of her emotional angst. His visuals radiate an ominous power that defy comparison. This is not an easy film to watch. It not only forces viewers to witness some terrible events, it clearly implies they happen on an almost daily basis. Yet, the integrity of his evocative aesthetic and the unsparing narrative are remarkably impressive.