Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hot Docs ’17: Still Tomorrow

Yu Xiuhua has experienced both extremes of contemporary Chinese life. She endured cerebral palsy, grinding rural, and a loveless arranged marriage to a man twenty years her senior, before finding her unlikely literary fame and fortune as an internet poet. Yu became the toast of Beijing, but she is still the same person she always was. Fan Jian documents Yu as she deals with her overnight success and lingering family resentments in Still Tomorrow (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hoc Docs.

Yin Shiping always thought Yu was lucky he agreed to the marriage her grandmother Zhou Jinxiang arranged. For nearly twenty years it deceptively appeared to work on a practical level, largely because Yin was often absent, working seasonally in Beijing. They managed to have a son together (whom Yu keeps entirely off-camera), but they were not exactly a lovey-dovey couple. Then, like a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky, Yu’s poetry goes viral, especially the verse that would become the title of her bestselling debut collection: “Cross half of China to sleep with you.”

The obvious sexual connotations are rather bold for today’s Mainland China, but the themes of separation, alienation, and yearning speak directly to both hardscrabble migrant workers and frequent flying wage slaves. However, it was her triumph of adversity story that the Chinese media really embraced—and it is that image which Yu herself tries so very hard to subvert.

To his estimable credit, Fan (who brought the excellent My Land to Hot Docs last year) understands Yu is a woman with the same complicated emotions and desires of any other ordinary individual and not just some sort of reductive feel-good symbol. Frankly, Yu can be a bit of a pill in many of the private moments Fan captured, but let’s be honest, she’s earned the right.

Clearly, she is also a genuine talent. Even in the stilted syntax of the on-screen translations, Yu’s imagery is absolutely arresting. Several scholars at a Yu Xiuhua liken her to Emily Dickinson, which seems rather lazy, because it is so apt.

Fan is there for some difficult family confrontations, but he never white-washes anything. Yet, Yu emerges as a more relatable and forgivably human figure as a result. It does not have the power or defiance of My Land, but it might just set the gold standard for documentary profiles of zeitgeisty figures, whom it would be all too easy to present in cliched terms. Highly recommended, Still Tomorrow screens again this morning (4/30) and next Sunday (5/7), as part of Hot Docs in Toronto.