Few movies capture the surreal comedy and engulfing horror of the money-driven world as piercingly as “Stonewalling.” A cool, quietly brilliant heartbreaker, it tracks a 20-year-old Chinese woman facing a series of seemingly impossible hurdles. She’s trying to learn English, struggling to make money and straining to please her boyfriend, who treats her like a rehab job with him playing the role of the project manager. It’s 2019 when the story opens, and she’s just trying to get by; it’s early 2020 when it ends, and everyone is wearing masks.
Lynn (Yao Honggui) and her boyfriend, Zhang (Liu Long), are shacked up in a hotel in the city of Changsha in Hunan province. The two seem fairly settled in their relationship or at least committed; happy would be a stretch. They’re learning English at a school where Lynn is a faltering beginner, and she’s also studying to become a flight attendant. There’s talk that they might live abroad, but right now they’re making ends meet as gig workers. He DJs and models clothes for a suit company, posing in videos that are posted online; she models for a jewelry store, standing outside it with a smile and in a princess get-up, tiara and all.
Lynn’s life takes a stark turn after she follows a tip from one of the store’s workers about another job, a seemingly friendly gesture that sends her down a twisting, progressively strange path. The filmmakers Huang Ji (who’s from China) and Otsuka Ryuji (Japan) — a wife-and-husband team who live in Japan — fluidly roll out the story piecemeal with scenes of everyday life and using realistic dialogue to fill in the blanks. But they also hold information back. You’re usually alongside Lynn and know what she knows, what’s happening and why, though sometimes you’re ahead of her; on occasion you’re both in the dark.
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The jewelry-store worker puts Lynn on to a sketchy agency that arranges human egg donations. “I have quick job,” she tells Lynn, “20,000 yuan a pop” (just under $3,000). Despite understandable concerns about her health, Lynn pursues the job and enters a mercenary world in which wealthy buyers shop for prospective donors with desirable qualities. “Is your nose real,” one client asks a donor, tapping a manicured finger on the young woman’s face. You half-expect the client to to check her teeth. Lynn only avoids this degradation because after the agency checks her out, the broker tells her that she’s pregnant.
The eerie banality of this scene, with its insistent calm and lack of histrionics, is a great, destabilizing shock, and it’s characteristic of a movie that understands it doesn’t need to embellish the obvious (and expects that you don’t need explanations). Here and throughout the movie, the filmmakers keep Lynn at both a visual and emotional distance, placing her in wide shots and keeping a lid on the character’s expressions. This gives you space to think, not just react, and to discover her at your own pace, to come to her, as it were. It also means that you can observe the larger world that surrounds her, with its people, tumult and loneliness.
Much of “Stonewalling” takes place after Lynn leaves her boyfriend, who wants her to have an abortion, and she moves into her parents home, a cramped, cluttered space upstairs from their small clinic, where her mother works as a gynecologist and her father dispenses traditional medicine. (The two are played with potent naturalism by Huang Ji’s own parents, Huang Xiaoxiong and Xiao Zilong, who have a clinic in real life.) It’s there that Lynn carries the pregnancy to term, though not because she’s ready to be a mother. Rather, after trying and failing at different hustles, and like so many others in this movie — who sell suits and snake oil, human ova and baby formula — she now has something of exchange value.
Children haunt this movie. With her tiny frame and gullibility, and with her retreat back to her parents’ home, Lynn herself scarcely seems like an adult. While her lack of self-awareness can be charming (or at least easy to sentimentalize), it is also worrisome. “Stonewalling” isn’t a thriller — among other things, its pulse is too unhurried — but as the story develops, Lynn’s drift, her failures, naïveté and foolish choices become a source of mounting, then churning tension. Time and again, she seems more childlike than adult, never more so than when the movie cuts from her lying in bed to a room filled with sleeping kindergartners.
“Stonewalling” is a tough-minded movie (it’s the third the filmmakers have made with Yao), but its heaviness never feels punishing because of the filmmakers’ analytic compassion. They don’t force the tears; they open a world that is at once strange and as familiar as your own in which everything has been reduced to its market value. This idea is thrown into bracing relief with a brief, startling shot of an enormous granite sculpture of the young Mao Zedong looking into the distance. The filmmakers don’t linger over the image; they don’t need to. They have already met its gaze with their own and with the open, anguished, indelibly haunting face of a young woman staring into a very different future.
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 28 minutes. In theaters.