A middle-aged woman’s stultifying life in rural China is momentarily enlivened by the arrival of a man who organises ceremonies for the dead in Shen Lianlian’s naturalist drama, Chang’e (常娥, Cháng é). Named for the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology, Shen’s film finds its embittered heroine lonely and resentful while also consumed with guilt over her desire to feel something more only to have her hopes of a new life dashed and like the goddess find herself alone as if marooned on a distant planet.
Shen opens the scene with the noisy clanging of the factory where 55-year-old Xiaoxiang (Wang Xiaoxiang) works, its repetitive rhythms marking out her life with dull futility. Foul mouthed and angry, she snaps at those around her not least her 30-year old bachelor son who shows no desire to get married while repeatedly reminding her that there’s nothing he can do but wait until a new apartment he wants to buy becomes available for sale. Meanwhile they discuss the death of a neighbour living in very similar circumstances to Xiaoxiang who is later revealed to have taken her own life.
This ominous event, however, presents new possibilities to Xiaoxiang who takes a liking to the mysterious middle-aged man who arrives to help them conduct the local death rites despite having previously criticised her neighbours for being unable to carry them out themselves. Because of a lack of available accommodation, Xiaoxiang ends up hosting him in her apartment and enjoying a sense of domesticity long absent from her life as her husband works away and rarely returns home. It’s at this point that she begins having bad dreams finding herself trapped in a rising bucket while the machine hammers behind her or walking around a market where the chicken’s feet remind her of human hands and she notices an embroidered shoe floating in the water.
Like the goddess Chang’e, Xiaoxiang has a pet rabbit she keeps in a cage with whom she closely identifies unable to escape the prison of her own existence yet her eventual parting with the creature is less liberation than resignation or even a kind of suicide. Meanwhile she watches a rocket, Chang’e 5, launch for the moon while seated firmly on her sofa. The mysterious man’s arrival may raise the sense of possibility, of a new more emotionally fulfilling life, but he is also of course a spectre of death hovering on the horizon. Along with the paper houses constructed for the ceremony, Xiaoxiang passes fires in front of graves confronting her with the ever present threat of mortality. She is told that the cause of her nightmares lies in having offended the dead for whom she must burn more sacrifices yet nothing seems to cure her anxiety or loneliness.
In a sense Xiaoxiang is performing her own death rites while coming to an accommodation with the idea that her life will have no more changes, as certain and repetitive as the machine which she operates. Shen captures the crushing disappointment of her small-town existence where even small pleasures such as buying a new coat are guilt-inducing luxuries with an unforgiving naturalism. Xiaoxiang gossips with a colleague suspecting that one of the other workers is being harassed by their boss but otherwise does nothing, her friend reminding her she no longer needs to worry about things like that as she is “not as pretty” as the unfortunate young woman. Using a cast of non-professional actors, the lead actress is indeed a factory worker from the director’s hometown, Shen lends an air of futility to the lives of women like Xiaoxiang while likening her to the distant and melancholy figure of Chang’e who finds herself alone, marooned on a lonely planet solely for her transgressive desires for emotional fulfilment in a life of stultifying productivity.
Original trailer (simplified Chinese / English subtitles)