When China introduced its one-child policy in 1980 in an attempt to control its rapidly expanding population, the country went through a spiritual reckoning with what it meant to build and be a family unit. Over the next five decades and until the law was changed in 2015, there were high numbers of botched sterilizations, abortions without consent, abandoned infant girls, and even infanticide. Parents who broke the law and had more than one child were forced to pay a social maintenance fee to the government as penance for their decision to take more than their fair share of state-ordained resources. It was only in 2021 that all limits, as well as penalties, regarding the number of children you could have were entirely removed.
In “Stonewalling,” a movie described by its directors as “observations of a post-Tik Tok China,” the film finds its ruminative rhythm in the relationship between the modern day and the way society converses with the erstwhile one-child policy that continues to impact attitudes towards abortion and motherhood. More precisely, it explores how a generation of Chinese women are lacking in societal support, forced to self-actualize in a society that sees them as less than their male counterparts.
Husband-and-wife directors Huang Ji and Otsuka Ryuji have carved out a niche exploring the ways families are forced to rupture in order to find meaningful work in modern China, with their prior works “Egg and Stone” and “Foolish Bird” examining how young women navigate knotty scenarios of sexual awakening and familial abandonment. Both those features were anchored by Yao Honggui, an actor discovered by the directors who herself had been left by her parents who sought work elsewhere — a common economic-domestic concern in Chinese society, known via the term “left-behind children.” She again stars in the duo’s newest film, this time as 20-year-old Lynn, lending her naturalistic grace to this story of rootlessness and maternity.
There’s a studied lack of urgency that gestates into something quietly meaningful throughout the glacial and lethargic “Stonewalling,” which offers a precise, if detached, view of a particular kind of Gen Z ennui. Lynn is a decidedly average girl adrift in the melee of modern life; she’s trying and failing to learn English and become a flight attendant, but is instead content to scroll on her phone and apply face masks rather than conscientiously apply herself. She barely talks, has no personality to speak of, and moves a little slower than everyone else around her. Following suit, the film inches along languidly, echoing Lynn’s own lack of purpose. With the way she sleepwalks through life — aimless and anaemic-looking, her hair tied in a droopy low ponytail — she may as well be in a fugue state.
But then Lynn finds out that she’s expecting, and despite the normalcy of abortion in China, she decides to carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption. It’s something to do, she supposes; the one thing Lynn has control over, that she can maybe succeed at, is pregnancy. Her wardrobe is shrewdly designed: she wears a series of t-shirts with English words on them that she doesn’t even understand, and which directly contradict the kind of slouchily low-energy person we know she is: “crescendoe [sic],” “femme fatale,” “flawless.”
Here, familial ties are mere transactional relationships. Lynn’s mother (played by director Huang Ji’s own mother, herself a gynecologist in real life) owns a sketchy “women’s clinic” known for its casual malpractice. She also hustles to make extra money through a MLM scheme selling a product called Vital Cream, with this specific type of ethically slippery nontrepeneurship having swept through TikTok in China in 2019. When Lynn announces her pregnancy, the business of babies is discussed and dealt with only in practical, rational, and financial terms. Indeed, “Stonewalling” is less concerned with exploring ovum donation or the ethics of purchasing fertility, but rather the attitudes towards medicine and motherhood in Chinese society as a whole.
Long takes — the camera rooted in one spot, the lens itself too sapped of energy to move — films sterile environments stuffed with clutter, with both the cinematography and production design helmed by the directors themselves. There are almost no close-up shots. Nobody even smiles or laughs for the entire two-and-a-half running time. Visually, emotionally, and spiritually, the film is embalmed in an antiseptic sheen.
As such, despite its formal rigor and effective, economic approach to storytelling, “Stonewalling” is hard to connect with. Perhaps that works to an artistic extent, mirroring a society where the only thing to do is keep moving forward with interminable, expressionless grit. But by siloing the thoughts and feelings of our unmoored, “everywoman” protagonist away from us, it’s difficult not to feel short-changed by the distancing and emotionally remote events unfolding across increasingly airless scenes. Just as the title suggests, “Stonewalling” is a work that refuses to offer easy answers.
“Stonewalling” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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