Debut features rarely come more confident than The Crossing, which sees director Bai Xue telling the story of a rookie smuggler without breaking a sweat. Focusing on a shy teenager who is lured into using her daily border crossing between Hong Kong and Shenzhen to illegally transport iPhones in order to make some quick cash, it fuses the concerns of China’s independent sector with the vivid aesthetic of global youth cinema to tantalizing effect.
16-year old Pei (Huang Yao) is a danfei (children born out of a Hong Kong-Chinese marriage) who lives with her hard-partying mother (Ni Hongjie) in the southeastern port city of Shenzhen but travels by express train to attend high school in Hong Kong where her father (Kai Chi Liu) scrapes a living as a security guard. Despite not having the generous allowances of her frivolous classmates, Pei has access to the Hong Kong high life through her friendship with Jo (Carmen Soup) who wants them to spend the upcoming holiday period at an exclusive spa resort in Japan. Pei tries to raise the money for the trip through a part-time waitressing job but a more lucrative opportunity comes through Jo’s boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun) who is part of a black market organization that smuggles the latest iPhones into the Mainland.
Being a member of the gang, which is presided over with matriarchal authority by Sister Hua (Elena Kong), bolsters Pei’s confidence. It also constitutes one of the film’s many ‘crossings’. She morphs from quiet schoolgirl to sly criminal, able to deal with tricky situations on the fly and willing to take her assignments to the next level. Pei goes from carrying a few iPhones in her bag to having a dozen or so taped to her body by Hao whose protective – and romantic – instincts are rebuffed by the new recruit as her sense of independence grows.
In terms of style and pacing, The Crossing owes much to Sofia Coppola. Bai captures the teenage perspective through handheld camerawork and a relatively casual, low-stakes approach to criminality while editor Matthieu Laclau provides elliptical montages that dynamically mix smuggling runs with youthful pursuits. She’s also similarly keen on music cues and employs them here – along with a freeze frame – whenever Pei makes a significant choice (or crossing). It’s a motif that could take one out of the film but instead pointedly evokes the teenage mindset that gives the energetic proceedings their distinctive tempo. However, the film can also be taken as a cousin of Nattawut Poonpiriya’s slick youth caper Bad Genius (2017) in which a prodigiously gifted female high school student helps her more affluent classmates cheat their way through exams. Both focus on smart, level-headed female protagonists who get drawn into risk-tasking for financial reasons only to double down after initial success out of frustration with a system that limits their options based on class or gender grounds.
As with Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying’s star-making performance in Bad Genius, lead actress Huang is utterly terrific here, transforming more through manner than appearance (she spends most of the film in the school uniform that makes Pei such an effective mule) and indicates a series of internal decision-making processes that relate as much to issues of identity as practical matters. After her first smuggling experience, Pei sets out the batch of iPhones and turns them on, transfixed by the blue-white light emitting from the screens. Unperturbed by society’s commoditization, she is willingly sucked in for the ride and Huang’s nuanced performance ensures the audience tags along without passing judgment.
Huang subsequently conveys Pei’s contradictions and realizations. The fledgling smuggler enjoys the camaraderie of the gang and finds a mother figure in Sister Hua, sitting by her side during gambling sessions despite chiding her actual mother for the same pastime. However, Sister Hua demonstrates an independence that her mother, who relies on a string of suitors, lacks. With the seemingly impossible task of accumulating the holiday funds taken care of and therefore rendered trivial, Pei starts to see a bigger picture. She actively challenges patriarchal expectations while Jo complains that her father won’t send her overseas for further study as he only expects her to become a Hong Kong housewife but remains fiercely possessive of Hao who she suspects is seeing someone else.
In a film that flits quickly between dialects and places, Bai clearly defines Hong Kong and Shenzhen. While the former is often seen in lively, abundantly colorful exteriors, the latter is mostly represented by the static interiors of Pei’s high-rise apartment, which looks out to a smoggy skyline. Even with Hong Kong in Beijing’s political grip, its appeal to Mainland teenagers seeking escapism is undiminished. With her perceptive take on a protagonist who exists somewhere in-between, Bai has established herself as an exciting talent.