Meili (China, 2018) [CVF 2019]

A debut on two fronts, Meili marks the first feature film for both director Zhou Zhou (previously a critic and editor) and lead actress Chi Yun, who also co-wrote the script. A towering achievement in Chinese art-house cinema, Meili is a case study, a psychological and sociological examination of a deeply troubled young woman unable to escape the claustrophobic world that surrounds her. It is a well-crafted film, true to its message, though at times perhaps not quite as true to its characters. 

The titular protagonist, Meili (Chi Yun), is a homosexual woman in her early twenties struggling to figure out how to navigate the confounding world around her. She works a crappy, underpaid job at a laundromat, and when she’s home, spends much of her time taking care of a girlfriend who drinks too much with her coworkers. We know Meili is very fond of her girlfriend, although it’s unclear whether their relationship is one of love or of co-dependence. While she may appear self-sufficient at times, Meili needs the companionship just as much. Occasionally, Meili must also deal with her sister and abusive brother-in-law, for whom she “involuntarily” surrogated a child. Meili sees herself as an unhappy young woman out of options, just like many others of her generation. She wants to move on, but doesn’t know how.

A glimmer of hope appears when Meili’s girlfriend offers to take her to Shanghai. At the promise of a new start, Meili quits her job and starts preparing for the trip, hoping to leave all the unpleasantness behind her. The trip doesn’t happen, however. Her girlfriend leaves without her, and Meili is forced to deal with the loneliness and desperation all by herself. From there, her story spirals towards tragedy and violence.

Zhou takes a big risk in Meili by crafting a film so dependent on the strength of the lead performance. Fortunately, the gamble pays off. Chi is astounding as Meili, holding her own within the long takes and delivering the intensely powerful responses that her character requires. The result of being a cowriter on the script clearly shows. Very much in the style of method acting, Yun seems to understand the character of Meili to its core and thoroughly inhabits it for the duration of the film. Even when completely static, her face overwhelms the screen with complex emotions that always manage to capture the essence of the scene. It’s incredible how a slight eye movement or a subtle body pose can convey so much meaning. Film culture revolves almost entirely around the glorification of directors (sometimes for good reason), but in Meili, it is the Yun’s acting that stands out.

But this is not to take away the director’s contribution to the film. Zhou knows exactly how to make the most of his actor’s talent by keeping her as the subject of nearly every shot. We rarely see the faces of the other characters as Meili is the one that matters. The versatile camera direction and the bleak, mostly grey-scale cinematography blend Meili into her background and – more importantly – they put her actions in perspective. Much in the vein of 1990s European independent cinema (particular those of the Dardenne Brothers), the visual aesthetic of the film reminds us that all people are, to a certain degree, a product of their environment. It’s a straightforward message but it works. Meili has had to contend with a harsh, high-stress reality all her life, and while that does not justify her actions, it certainly explains them.

That message prevails throughout the film, but there are times where it doesn’t ring quite as true. Every single action Meili takes ensures her certain descent towards ugliness and destruction, capped by a final act of violence once Meili realizes all hope is lost. Like in all good drama, the ending can only succeed by striking the perfect balance between inevitability and surprise. And the film does that. However, it is unclear at times whether it is Meili herself going down that road, or whether it is the filmmakers that forcibly push her towards the path of most suffering.

Regardless, Meili is the product of a director in full control of his craft, making the best use of the elements available to him to deliver an emotionally impactful story. A perfect harmony between Chi’s astonishing performance and Zhou’s cinéma vérité -inspired camerawork, Meili will hopefully be the first step in long and prosperous career for both of them.

Meili is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 6.

John Atom