The left behind children of decaying industrial China find themselves at the mercy of a corrupted parental legacy in Shen Yu’s neo-noir tragedy The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Tùzi Bàolì). Each longing for escape but living in defeat, the three young women at the film’s centre search for signs of possibility in a world they fear has already rejected them but encounter only darkness and futility brokered by the broken adults apparently unable or unwilling to parent or protect them from the world their indifference has forged.
Beginning at the narrative’s conclusion, Shen introduces us to a frantic woman, Qu Ting (Wan Qian), an anxious man Shui Hao (An Shi), and the confused Ma (Pan Binlong) as they desperately search for their missing daughters apparently kidnapped for a ransom none of them could ever hope to be able to pay. Fed up with the whole thing, Shui Hao determines to go to the police while Qu Ting is reluctant, fearful that the kidnappers will kill their daughter Shui Qing (Li Genxi), Ma simply going along with it. At the police station, however, they receive a call to say the girls are safe and Shui Qing is already at home but there’s more going on here than we first assumed other than Ma’s sudden heart attack on being told that his daughter Yueyue (Zhou Ziyue) has simply gone to visit a friend in another town.
Flashing back some days before the climactic night, we realise that Shui Hao and Qu Ting are long separated and Shui Qing is living a miserable life rejected by her stepmother who coldly tells her to stay out a little longer because her parents are visiting and they don’t want any “outsiders” at dinner. At an open air noodle stand, she happens to catch sight of the radiant Qu Ting realising her mother has returned but unsure if she recognises her. The two women awkwardly reconnect, Qu Ting making it clear that she will be leaving in a few days and isn’t keen on having a teenage girl cramp her style, but gradually bond as they begin to spend more time together.
What immediately becomes clear is that Qu Ting is somewhat arrested and emotionally immature, hanging out with Shui Qing’s high school friends Jin Xi (Chai Ye) and Yueyue as if she were a teenager but inappropriately allowing them to drink wine at dinner as if they were on a girls’ night out. Lonely and rejected by her stepmother Shui Qing longs for approval, but also to save her mother who is currently living in an abandoned theatre and seemingly desperate for money she claims is for a “project”, later implying that when it’s over she may start a business and be with her daughter full time but soon enough Shui Qing is pulled into an urban world of gangsters and loansharks governed by rules she is ill-equipped to understand.
Her friends, meanwhile, have their own problems. Rich kid Jin Xi carries self harm scars on her arms and seems to be the only one at school not wearing a uniform. Her wealthy parents work away in the city and so Jin Xi is largely left alone as abandoned and fearful as Shui Qing but also filled with resentful anger. Yueyue perhaps has the opposite problem in that she feels trapped by her controlling, abusive father, Ma. Raised by wealthy relatives until her father returned, Yueyue longs to be free of him but he refuses to let her go even though the relatives are keen to adopt her and can obviously promise a more comfortable way of life and better opportunities for the future than the impoverished Ma.
“Everyone’s looking for a carefree paradise” according a mournful pop song heard on the radio and it’s certainly true of the three girls and Qu Ting each looking for something more if unsure exactly of what it is or how to get it. Shui Qing yearns for maternal approval but ends up playing mother while Qu Ting finally accepts her corrupted maternity only in the most tragic of maternal sacrifices in attempting to protect her daughter from the radiating darkness her return has cast over her life. “It doesn’t matter if our dreams sink they’ll just be floating bottles” the girls cheerfully uttered, but each of them find themselves unanchored longing for the security of parental affection and dependability but left largely alone quasi-orphaned by the demands and contradictions of the modern China. Shen’s melancholy neo-noir is a stark coming-of-age tale which finds little place for innocence in the contemporary society relegating it only to the space of memory a casualty of parental disconnection and adolescent futility.
The Old Town Girls streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)