A young woman becomes lost in a confusingly timeless world of fractured memory in Niu Xiaoyu’s ethereal drama, Virgin Blue (不要再見啊,魚花塘, bùyào zàijiàn ā, yúhuā táng). As realities continue to shift and blur, we begin to wonder if two women are really one as seen through the memories of another and what we are experiencing is the confusion of dementia or perhaps a dying dream in which the heroine tries to put the pieces of her memory back in the right place only to end up at a mythical lake populated by those no longer able to live in the “real” world. 

Nominally Yezi (Ye Zi) is a recently graduated student returned home to stay with the widowed grandmother (Shengzhi Zheng) who raised her after her parents divorce over the summer, yet we often see her taking her grandmother’s place, finishing her knitting, while alternately rebelling against childhood’s end in insisting that she doesn’t want to grow up, has no interest in a relationship, and most of all wants her grandmother to go on knitting sweaters for her. At a hospital appointment, the pregnant nurse who in someways at least stands in for her own mother simultaneously her criticises for being unattached at such a “late” age and cites her celibacy as a possible explanation for her youthful appearance. 

We see that Yezi walks with a limp, she is diagnosed with hypoplasia at the hospital appointment, and that grandma has bad knees which she is later treated for by a buddhist nun in a dream. It’s grandma who keeps fearing that she’s forgetting but Yezi who isn’t clear with her, first of all telling her that grandpa died in 2020 (which is the current year) and then that it’s only 2013. Grandma claims that she always feels out of place, as if she were in someone else’s home and never her own which might in a sense be true. At times, the meta voice of the director can be heard off camera sharing stories of her own such as a traumatic dream in which her grandparents came to rescue her after youthful heartbreak but her grandmother got stabbed by a mystery attacker on the way home leaving her feeling that if only she were stronger and more independent, she would not have needed rescuing and grandma would be alive. Could the director be the “real” Yezi and her film counterpart a search for self in the memories of her grandparents? Perhaps so, as the image of her parents seems to drift into the scene along with potential friends and suitors who may or may not be figments of her imagination.

Even so her eventual destination is a surreal fantasyland peopled by a runaway princess who escaped from the real world after a failed elopement, a man who might once have been a kidnapped boy dressed in a bear suit, and a series of tiny dancers who perform elaborate dance routines for classic Chinese pop songs. The princess, Jingjing, and the bear describe themselves as monsters, marginalised to the lake, while monstrous is also how grandma describes the vision of herself as a dementia sufferer worried that even Yezi would reject her. The pregnant nurse and her colleague discuss the new trend for caesarean births, the colleague advising her to see a fortune teller and choose a good day in order to ensure that the child will not bring bad luck on its parents. 

Through it all, Yezi has visions of herself as a child with her late grandfather as if looking for childhood safety and comfort while trying to reorient herself as an adult. The fantasy world with its larger than life, childlike designs and nostalgic tunes is somewhere between fairytale safety and a kind of limbo from which Yezi is either eventually released or fully condemned as she looks back us, breaking the fourth wall to shake her head as if in warning. Infinitely strange yet also charming even in its confusions, Virgin Blue has a kind of melancholy warmth as Yezi tries to reintegrate this fragmenting world while processing her grief perhaps even for her self along with interrogating her past before ending on a note of joyful celebration as the monsters of Yuhua pond dance in the daylight to an unexpected rendition of Jun Togawa’s 1988 hit Daitenshi no you ni (Like an Angel).

Virgin Blue screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Trailer (dialogue free)

Jun Togawa – Daitenshi no you ni (Like an Angel)

Images © Yu Tang Films (Anhui)

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