A young teenage girl sits on her bed, her hand reaching into her underpants. There’s a shiny key looped around her neck, a telltale sign that she’s a ledge-door kid. Her room is already dim, but she goes to her window, making sure the brown cardboard paper covering the glass is firmly in place. She returns to her bed and wraps her head tightly in a pillow, trying desperately to muffle the pounding sound against her door. Only when she hears the footsteps fade into the distance does she finally let go of her pillow and heave a heavy sigh of relief.
This is the opening scene of female director Huang Ji’s debut feature Egg and Stone—a rare film that tackles the taboo topic of the sexual abuse of so-called ‘left-behind children’ in rural China. Huang’s 2012 feature, which won the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, stands out in that it bears none of the trademarks of a Western movie dealing with the subject of sexual violence against children. There’s no shouting matches or accusations, no tears or melodrama—just a shy young girl trying desperately to survive her intense anxiety and loneliness during a chilly winter. Yet there’s a stark beauty about the film that makes it quietly powerful.
Filmed entirely in the gritty Hunan dialect, the story focuses on fourteen-year-old Honggui who has been living with her maternal aunt and uncle in a small Hunan village while her parents work in the city trying to make some money. As the aunt complains to her husband, we learn that the teen has overstayed her welcome because the initial arrangement for a year or two has stretched into seven years since Honggui’s parents left town.
For Honggui, life is unfulfilling, even suffocating, and her despair contrasts with the beautiful mountain scenery. She tries to reach out to her mother over the phone but is told that her mom is busy. There’s a vague promise of a return call, but her mother never calls back.
Honggui hardly speaks to her uncle and aunt, and her only solace is a teenage boy about her age who gives her rides around town. He makes her gifts of stone carvings, and she returns his kindness with bags of eggs. Their puppy love doesn’t last because the boy, who works in a nearby mine, soon leaves town to find a better job in the city. All the while Honggui struggles alone in the dark as she realizes her period is hopelessly late.
Egg and Stone was shot over a three-month period in Huang’s home village of Yiyang in south central Hunan province with the help of her then-boyfriend Ryuji Otsuka, who doubled as producer and cinematographer on the project. Because of a limited budget, the cast is made up entirely of non-professionals recruited locally. The film, said to be a semi-autobiographical depiction of the director’s own childhood as a ‘left-behind’ child in Hunan, caused a stir when it first came out because its subject matter. It’s said to be the first Chinese film to tackle the issue of sexual abuse involving young neglected children.
The film is not without its flaws. It can feel disjointed in places because there’s hardly any dialogue. And what little dialogue there is can come across rather unemotional and wooden—probably reflecting the cast’s inexperience. This puts a lot of onus on the audiences to pick up on the visuals.
Perhaps in part because of this heavy reliance on non-verbal cues, some of the metaphors and symbolism in the docudrama can seem a bit forced, including the hints of Honggui’s suicidal thoughts through recurring images of funerals and portraits for the deceased. In another example, the slaughter of a chicken toward the end of the film is an allegory for Honggui’s role as the sacrificial lamb within the family.
For a work trying to expose the sexual abuse of young teens, the muted treatment can seem strangely non-confrontational and somewhat spineless. The film also comes off rather like a ‘who dun nit’ feature, with the audience kept in the dark for much of the story about who got Honggui pregnant. Even the hint that comes towards the end is very understated－so much so that it’s easily missed if you’re not paying close attention.
Yet it’s precisely this quiet treatment, which is meant to reflect the victim’s anguish and her silent cries of helplessness, rather than some aggressive, sweeping social perspective, that makes the film unique and that much more personal.
In an interview with a local Hunan paper, Huang said she wanted to explore this taboo subject from the eyes of a fearful young girl because she believed the personal approach can better transcend language and national borders.
Haunted by her own traumatic experience of being abused at the age of eight, Huang said she was obsessed with making the film ever since graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 2007 in hopes of exploring the guilt she’d long shouldered of having done “something wrong.” “It wasn’t easy for me to confront a shameful past. Yet only by doing so can I hope to move forward and get on with my life,” she was quoted as saying. “We’re sometimes brittle like an egg, but can also be strong like a stone,” she added. To Huang, the film appears to represent both redemption and self-liberation.
Huang said she wants to convey through Honggui’s non-communicative and extremely shy character how ‘left-behind’ children often have no one to turn to and are left utterly silenced and alone. To this end, Huang and Otsuka, who later became her husband, provided the film with ample shots and stills to capture the mood of the main character’s hushed suffocation in her dingy room and claustrophobic surroundings. The many frames of the sealed window inside Honggui’s dark room, meant as a mirror reflecting the insular world of a deeply frightened and troubled child, are particularly well done. In this way, Huang drives home the sense of helplessness and desperation of neglect and sexual violation.
Egg and Stone is a highly allegorical and demanding work that requires the audience’s full attention. Yet the film is also rewarding in its message and unique perspective, a brave work that shines a light on an important subject that has been routinely hushed in society, a powerful film that deserves to be seen.
Egg and Stone is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.