Lush Reeds (China, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

A socially conscious journalist ventures out from the metropolitan center to pursue a human rights story only to dig deeper into herself in Yang Yishu’s second narrative feature. Pivoted on a quietly riveting performance from indie star Huang Lu, this critique of China’s supposedly modernized society from an anxious middle-class female perspective thoughtfully addresses the limitations placed on personal and professional agency. Segueing from a suffocating first half in a major city to a phantasmagoric second in an increasingly unreal countryside, Yang boldly takes her complex psychological drama into lucid dream territory.

Huang plays Xiayin, a reporter for a Nanjing newspaper who is drawn to potentially controversial stories but often finds that her work goes unused by her politically cautious editor. Recently married to attentive but unaffectionate university professor Feng Yu (Lin Zheyuan), she is struggling to assert her presence in the home as well as in the workplace. Having moved into Feng Yu’s apartment, Xiayin is not only being encouraged by her husband to organize her things in a way that do not interfere with his prior arrangement but also to find a new owner for her dog, which he considers a nuisance.

With things at an impasse, she resolves to restore her sense of self-worth by pursuing the story of Gao Fuquan (Gao Zexiao), a humble farmer who claims that not only has his pond been polluted by a nearby factory, but that members of his family have been unfairly detained after making complaints. Although publication is unlikely, Xiayin heads out to interview Gao at his home in Panxia Village, only to stumble into an otherworldly realm with echoes of her past when she encounters a mysterious young girl (Feng Yizhi).

Yang spends the first half of the film in observational mode with her protagonist who, in turn, pays close attention to what is going on around her. We see Xiayin spend time listening in a diligent yet compassionate manner to interview subjects and she first notices Gao through the CCTV system as his efforts to attract the attention of journalists to his situation are rebuffed. Without audio, Xiayin is initially unaware of Gao’s circumstances, but is inexorably drawn to those clearly in a marginalized social-economic position.

Yet despite her best efforts she seems to be gravitating to the periphery of her profession, regardless of whatever journalistic qualities she evidences. When seen in the newspaper office, Xiayin is often positioned at a remove from her colleagues or on the edge of the team. In the break room, the camera tracks behind her as she moves around her colleagues to sit in the corner, away from the in-the-know conversation. Domestically, she is unable to settle into her husband’s apartment with boxes of personal belongings left unpacked.

Following a certain tradition of Chinese cinema and literature, there is a juxtaposition of city and countryside in Lush Reeds, as signaled by a delayed title card about halfway through when Xiayin travels to a rural area to follow-up on Gao’s story. As the city here is Nanjing, rather than the international hubs of Beijing or Shanghai, the urban environment is perhaps more of an in-between space with its abundant greenery, and proximity to the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Still, the humid summer atmosphere and occasional downpours makes for a stifling environment while professional and domestic spaces have a sterile atmosphere. Although glimpses of large-scale construction projects suggest a globalizing landscape, culture here remains localized and sternly patriarchal. Researching a story concerning a property dispute, Xiayin is kept off-screen while a male official dominates the space by shutting down her enquiry and states that he will deal directly with her editor in the future.

There are displays of male dominance in the countryside, too, notably a gang of thugs who physically intimidate Xiayin, but the rural environment nonetheless proves to be a more suitable place for self-reflection. At times recalling the work of Banana Yoshimoto and Apichatpong Weerasethakul while evidencing a unique tone, this part of the film conflates time and space as Xiayin becomes lost while trying to find Panxia Village. It’s a place that is probably thoroughly mundane yet takes on a near mythical dimension through the reporter’s intrepid quest.

Seamlessly navigating temporal shifts, Huang’s carefully modulated, powerfully internalized performance conveys a palpable sense of exasperation that is emblematic of the difficulty of maintaining idealism in a society still defined by an expectation to follow the status quo.

Lush Reeds is showing on October 1 and 3 at the Vancouver International Film Festival.