Small town youngsters dreaming of elsewhere are a staple of American life (just ask any waiter in Hollywood) and cinema, but such teen escapism isn’t confined to the United States. Perhaps the more conservative aspect of rural life is an instigator, and as such it is understandable that Chinese director Zhai Yixiang sets his second film Mosaic Portrait in a small town in China’s central Hunan province. The metaphor-laden film slyly uses the male players around its teen, female protagonist to underscore the strongly patriarchal society the girl in question wants to escape, painting the titular portrait of the girl indeed as a mosaic of male interpretations of her. As the film zones in on the girl in the final act, it turns out they were all wrong.
At fourteen, Ying (Zhang Tongxi in an impressive debut) dreams of a life outside Yanglin, her small rural hometown. With a nagging mother at home, and a father (Wang Yanhui) who rarely is home because he is a migrant worker, Ying’s escapism leads to pregnancy. The big question: by whom? Ying names her teacher, Mr. Zhang, and her father confronts the school. After being stonewalled there, he gets unexpected help from an investigative reporter from the city, Jia (Wang Chuanjun), who questions the authorities. All the men surrounding Ying try to get a full picture of her whilst never truly consulting the girl herself. Ying is elusive to all, but that is mostly because they do not truly look. The one who comes closest to her is Jia, but even he can’t truly penetrate Ying’s defenses, which she doesn’t consciously throw up but which shroud her in mystery nonetheless. She lacks definition, but it’s by choice, as Zhai uses her elusiveness to present her as a problem to be solved by the male part of the cast, a role that male part firmly believes it should play. A subtle elucidation of the subversive role played by women in Chinese society. At some point it is decided that Ying will carry the baby to term, yet without consulting Ying. The reasoning behind this is it will identify (through DNA tests) the culprit who got the young girl pregnant, again overlooking Ying’s part of the story.
As Ying itself is a stand-in for female China, so are her circumstances a source of hope. Initially, this mysterious and undefined teen is presented as a girl with eyesight problems, wandering through the misty streets of her town and the landscapes surrounding it. Our view of her is often half or even fully obscured. In her first encounter with Jia she is even kept behind frosted glass, a shot mirrored later in the film as Ying has a conversation with a girl in a similar situation as hers. At that point, Ying has left all the metaphors of poor eyesight and the foggy countryside behind, as we find her in a rehabilitation center of sorts. She seems to be thriving, and even acts as a rock to cling to for a more troubled roommate. It is to this girl that she relates the story of the elephant and the blind men: each feels a part of the elephant and describes what he feels, but none of them gets the whole picture of the elephant. Only someone with poor story eyesight would not see the parallel between this story and Ying’s own. It’s an interesting indication that Ying herself understands how she is only a prop in some mystery the men in her life are trying to solve, while not seeing that she is the mystery herself. “How well do you understand your daughter?” someone asks of Ying’s father at one point, a question he tellingly does not answer.
The shift of focus to Ying as the central character means that the audience perhaps cannot answer the question either, but they understand that Ying is finding her place in the world, away from people who try to control and subdue her. Piecing together all the views others have of her will not render a full portrait, only a fractured mosaic. The final act, however, does reveal one man in her life who is interested in her as a person: Zhai Yixiang. He paints her as a compassionate girl who comes into her own in this new environment. She remains incompletely rendered, but what’s missing is not for a lack of vision, but for a reserve in what the girl wants to show us. Ying may lack a bit of characterization, but that is entirely deliberate and the point.
Zhai Yixiang follows in the footsteps of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers, crafting with Mosaic Portrait a mixture of that generations’s social realism and impressionistic scenes that rely as much on mood as they do on plot. Wang Weihua’s impressive cinematography, rendering Ying’s surroundings in both cold and foggy blues and greens to underline her solitude, as well as warmer and darker, deeper tones in the moments she has true human connections, enriches the fractured portrait of a young woman seeking to define herself, a definition that she by no means wants to be a composite of the patriarchy that seeks to define her as well.