Friday, December 23, 2022

The Old Town Girls

Teenaged Shui Qing’s economically-stagnant industrial hometown was already depressed and depressing. Imagine what it was like after the Xi lockdowns. She could hardly stand any of it, including what passes for her family: a disinterested father, an openly hostile step-mother, and her spoiled little half-sister. Despite resenting her biological mother’s abandonment, Shui Qing can’t help be seduced by her big city glamor and worldliness when the long-absconded woman reappears, but their reunion leads to tragedy in Shen Yu’s The Old Town Girls, which releases today on VOD.

We can tell from the in media res opening things will work out badly for Shui Qing and her mother Qu Ting. She left her daughter and workaholic husband to pursue a career as a dancer in the cosmopolitan (by regional standards) Shenzhen. However, she is back, hoping to raise money to pay off the loan sharks she owes. Qu Ting never intended to visit her daughter, but their paths cross when Shui Qing is banished from her home, while her step-mother’s parents visit.

Qu Ting still isn’t exactly the maternal type, but she still worries about her troubles sweeping-up Shui Qing as well, Yet, she sort of enjoys the attention and the ability to mold her affection-starved daughter. Finally, Shui Qing starts to feel better about herself, at least compared to her school friends. Jin Xi so resents her well-to-do but constantly absent parents, she faked her own kidnapping to get back at them. In contrast, Ma Yueyue’s mentally unstable father is so poor, he almost allowed his boss to adopt her. The wealthy couple still lobbying for “temporary” custody, which acerbates his mood swings.

In some ways, the neo-noir elements at the beginning and end of the film might feel at odds with the difficult mother-daughter drama that makes up its meaty center. However, every bit of
Old Town Girls is driven by the characters’ desperation, both economic and emotional. Shen pulls no punches depicting the exploitation of contemporary Mainland society. For its Chinese release, she was forced to tack on a “crime does not pay” post-it-note at the end, but there is a glaring lack of criminal or “social” justice in the drama that unfolds on-screen.

Regina Wan Qian is terrific as Qu Ting, setting-up her up as a diva-ish femme fatale and then knocking viewers for a loop with her inner turmoil and pangs of guilt. She is a mess, but in a keenly human kind of way. Likewise, Li Gengxi is completely—often painfully—believable as Shui Qing. You can just see the damage done to her in every scene.

Weirdly, Shen and cinematographer Wang Shiqing’s use of light and color is frequently beautiful, even though they make the fading rust-town setting look drab and oppressive. It is evocatively dark and dreamy, but also brutally stark. Sometimes pacing is a bit of an issue for Shen, but overall, it is quite an accomplished film. Recommended for those who can appreciate socially conscious film noir,
The Old Town Girls releases today (12/23) on VOD.