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Where EAST meets the Northwest

THICK AS THIEVES. Yanni (left), played by Hong Kong singer and TV and film actor Zhou Xun, and boyfriend Muyu (actor Su Xiaoming) star in director Li Shaohong’s Stolen Life. (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #35 (August 28, 2007), page 16.

What cannot be stolen

Stolen Life

By Li Shaohong

Starring Zhou Xun and Wu Jun

Presented by the Global Film Initiative, 2007

Mandarin with English subtitles

By Ronault L.S. Catalani

There are costs, big human costs, paid for change. It’s true for individual change, like a kid turning into a teenager, or a teen becoming an adult. It’s true for societal change too, like China shifting from a rural to an industrial state.

It’s also true that the bigger the discontinuity, so too the bigger the uncertainty of what change is making of us. The bigger our dislocation, the greater the cost for getting me and you from here to there. Change hurts.

China, any dope will tell you, is big. The biggest. Chinese culture is old. Persistent. Sudden turns in modern times by Mao Zedong or Chou Enlai notwithstanding, certain essentially Chinese elements are stubborn. And certain to turn tragic when big change overtakes them.

Director Li Shaohong’s drama, Stolen Life (Sheng Si Jie) is about change, personal and societal change. Her stage is modern Beijing — a venue laying bare all those tender, timeless dreams and all that foul pragmatism made possible by China’s big discontinuities and dislocations. This film hurts.

What makes it hurt, aside from the universality of inevitable change and irreparable loss, are Ms. Li’s actors. More to the point: their faces, their simply unwashed faces. Main character Yanni (Hong Kong singer and TV and film actor Zhou Xun) moves the film with her vulnerable eyes and her tentative smiles. Boyfriend Muyu (played by Wu Jun), Yanni’s uneducated delivery man — pun totally intentional — is completely convincing. His furrowed brow is irresistible, and so are his sociopathic lies. Aihua (actor Su Xiaoming), Yanni’s commune-raised, commie-schooled mother, has a face as flat as her lumpen proletariat emotional affect. Stolen Life’s faces seem gathered from a packed Xian-to-Shanghai railroad car rather than a casting agent’s actor’s stable.

Director Li Shaohong’s manhandling of mood and pace fill in the spaces between her film’s tender and tight acting.

Much of the story is subterranean, literally and metaphorically. Most scenes occur underground, below Beijing’s street level, several tiers below rapidly modernizing China’s official economy, where the newly arrived connect and connive with limited skills but boundless energy. Occasionally, just occasionally, the action breathes the light of day — Yanni in her bright white lab coat in a college classroom, Yanni and boyfriend Muyu in his tin can delivery van at a drive-in movie, under relentless rain.

Pacing is likewise finely engineered. Long languid moments, love’s possibilities at one end, desperate social isolation at the other, are punctuated by disaster intruding suddenly, irrevocably.

Yanni gets through it. Her future is still hers.

The future promises nothing but something more than her hard-hard past, something better than her dank concrete underground bedroom. Her life is still hers.

For her effort with Stolen Life, mainland China director Li Shaohong was presented the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival Founder’s Award for Best Narrative Feature by American film producer/director/actor Robert De Niro. For her contribution toward understanding the very human drama that is China, the real China underneath her red-hot stock market performance and all those astounding economic projections, Stolen Life was selected as a Global Lens 2006 feature film distributed and presented by the Global Film Initiative. The New-York-based arts and education foundation promotes cross-cultural understanding through cinema, probably our planet’s most influential medium, particularly on youth. The organization believes authentic storytelling cultivates respect between disparate cultures, mitigating against international and intercultural bigotry.

To learn more about the Global Lens film series or the work of the Global Film Initiative, visit <>. To purchase the Stolen Life DVD, visit <>.