Novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo’s (She, a Chinese) adaption of her own satire about the transformation of a small village in the wake of a UFO sighting…
Shi Ke stars as Kwok Yun, an unattached labourer in a nearby quarry who claims to have seen a UFO (shortly after a dalliance with a local married head teacher). Announcing it to her village chief and head of the local communist party, Chang (Mandy Zhang), no one believes her. That is until an American tourist she helped just after the sighting, Steve Frost (played by the forever alien looking German actor Udo Kier, Blade, Suspiria, Iron Sky, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), sends a sizable cheque to the village in thanks.
Soon the village is changing out of all recognition, as new developments pop up all over place and the beautiful quiet of the rural countryside disrupted forever. Kwok finds her destiny is no longer her own, as she must bend to the wishes of the village…
Celebrated novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo presented the film in person at the Hackney Picturehouse as part of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, not far from her British home. Her novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction, her film How Is Your Fish Today? received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Créteil International Women’s Film Festival in Paris, while her last film She, a Chinese took the highest prize, the Golden Leopard at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival.
Told partly through the eyes of police investigator, documentary style black and white interviews bring some of the biggest laughs, as the changes become all too apparent each time he returns. Leaving the communist party headquarters, little more than a shack with a typewriter; when he revisits it’s a several-story office building, compete with murals and apple computers. It’s as close as the film gets to Guo’s original novel, told completely as a series of procedural interviews it was her way of playing with that style of prose.
For the main part Guo film version centres on a more traditional style of narrative around Kwok, intriguingly pretty much ditching much of the police inspector device around halfway through. Somehow in this context, the device doesn’t seem to gel as well as it could; nor does Guo take the opportunity to expand on the novel’s character beyond this faceless voice.
A parable about the individual versus Totalitarianism, Guo quoted George Orwell’s 1984 as one of biggest influences on both the original book and the film, Guo was keen to play down any political aspects to the film. For her it was more of a conversation with herself; her desire for technology, but not the environmental upheaval that comes with it. In a very real sense, it’s the flipside of progress that could happen anywhere. But you can understand why the question of her political message keeps coming up; it’s a famialir image of China’s progress, and hard to dispel those thoughts when the story is placed in the context of the Chinese communist party. Especially when Che Guevara sits next to Mao on party headquarters walls (though that’s in part Guo’s homage to Soviet-Cuban film Soy Cuba aka I Am Cuba).
There’s much fun to be had as chief Chang’s enthusiasm for transforming the village and welcoming UFO tourists and their ‘American Friend’ know no bounds, even when the local people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. Mandy Zhang is quite a delight; as her character is oblivious to it all. Kwok Yun gives a convincing performance as a woman in her 30s/40s who has deliberately stayed unmarried – her only way of staying independent, not a wife or mother, but a woman in her own right – and her sadness of losing that to the ‘greater good’. Perhaps it’s reading too much into the character, but you can’t help felling there’s a little element of ‘their but for the grace…’ on Guo’s part.
Visually there are nice references to Maoist propaganda posters and imagery. Considering how it was filmed – close to the borders with Vietnam, so that, according to Guo, they could flee if the authorities turned up – the end results and production were pretty impressive. The credits even lists fake Vietnamese names on the cast just in case.
Guo explained that in front of the camera, the cast was mainly local villagers, including the real village chief who appears in one scene as an art school model; behind the camera, however, they had to be German as this was a German production. (Part of the agreement for funding, apparently.)
With a quirky soundtrack from Canadian producer Mocky, UFO In Her Eyes is a sharp, funny, likable satire on the commercial corruption of ideals and the state, if not quite perfect.