Since the late-1990s, Guo Xiaolu has been developing a fascinating, multi-disciplinary career that ranges from literary fiction to incisive documentaries to narrative features, with such novels as 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (2008) and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) enjoying mainstream success while her work as a director has been celebrated on the festival circuit, even if art-house success has so far eluded her. That may change with UFO in Her Eyes, a barbed commentary on the modernisation of China, which not only marks the first time that Guo has adapted one of her novels for the screen but fully embraces a fantastical premise to explore cultural shifts that usually receive the docudrama treatment from mainland China filmmakers. The strange events take place in and around the Three Headed Bird Village of Guangxi province where 35-year-old single peasant Kwok Yun (a remarkable Shi Ke) has been engaging in regular trysts with a married school headmaster (Zhou Lan). Wandering in the fields after a bout of secluded love-making, Kwon Yun finds a crystal which leads to a blinding alien encounter, then the sudden appearance of a Westerner (Udo Kier), who she treats for snake bite before he disappears. After recovering, Kwon Yun reports the incident to village head Chief Chang (Mandy Zhang), which results in the arrival of an officious government investigator from Beijing, while Chang exploits the ensuing publicity as a means of transforming the area into a tourist attraction complete with UFO theme park, golf course, and hotel.
As with Guo’s earlier feature How is Your Fish Today? (2006), which blended three forms of narrative, UFO in Her Eyes utilises multiple perspectives and aesthetic sensibilities while never losing track of its central conceit. The investigator interviews the inhabitants of the village to establish what happened on the day of the extra-terrestrial visitation, prompting various flashbacks that serve to elaborate on the opening sequence, and subsequently remains to observe the social-political flux that follows. His face is never seen as the investigator’s contact with the villagers is shot from his point-of-view in stark black-and-white, making him the literally faceless representative of the state who sees China’s population in simple terms, such as ‘farmer’, ‘local’ or ‘migrant’. The rest of the film bursts with kaleidoscopic colour as Guo vividly conveys a region in a state of sudden transformation due to capitalist impulses, with the natural wonder of the area being replaced by tacky commercial enterprise. Kwon Yun’s burgeoning celebrity status promises to free her from a life of hard labour in the local mine, while the headmaster decides to divorce his domineering wife in order to marry his illiterate lover, but the corporate culture that encroaches on the village proves to be a further trap. Declared to be the ‘model peasant’ of the year by the opportunistic Chang, she seeks escape from a society which is inherently contradictory in that it is wary of outsiders yet willing to ‘open up’ in order to reap the economic benefits of such attention.
Chang still believes in Maoist collectivism and proudly informs the investigator that the former Chairman was born in the region, yet is happy to host a motivational speaker who delivers ‘re-education’ lectures on how to get rich quick on the basis that you should, ‘only invest other people’s money’. The business guru cheerfully explains that, ‘the packaging is more important than the product’, while the villagers repeat his words in unison. The stability of the village is threatened by this ill-suited fusion of ideologies as farmers lose their land to make way for construction, prompting the threat of a peasant revolt. Others relish their newfound wealth, such as the village secretary who becomes the boss of the new five-star hotel and offers the investigator a fifty per-cent discount on a room for the night, with the option of having one of the ‘delightful hostesses’ stop by for ‘full service’. Idiosyncrasies abound, with Kier eventually reappearing, his character identified as an American named Simon Frost, although the actor maintains his German accent, while the acknowledged references to the exaggerated contrasts of Mikhail Kalatozov’s legendary I am Cuba (1964) by cinematographer Michal Tywoniuk lend the film a surreal visual palette. UFO in Her Eyes is an abstract yet accessible critique of modern China which hits its satirical targets while remaining entirely sympathetic to the plight of its heroine who, in a beautifully realised coda, finds the will to take control of her destiny and embark on an individual journey towards ‘the future’.