Venice 2022 review: Stonewalling (Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka)

Stonewalling is testament to the idea that to build a compelling narrative one does not have to rely on excessive dramatic gesture.”

There aren’t that many husband-and-wife director teams in cinema history, but China’s Huang Ji and Japan’s Ryuji Otsuka seem to have liked their first collaboration as a couple, 2017’s The Foolish Bird, so much that they now return with their second combined film, Stonewalling, a film that thematically not only follows in the footsteps of their previous outing but also in those of Huang Ji’s solo debut, 2012 IFFR winner Egg and Stone. Three films that highlight the problematic position of (young) women in current-day China on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Expanding their horizon to tackle topics such as the gruelling gig economy and China’s treatment of ethnic minorities, Stonewalling‘s sprawling and not altogether optimistic look at Chinese society may prove a hurdle for those concerned with its length, but is an affecting descent into the miserable solitude its protagonist has to face while those around her pursue their own interests without a shred of humanity.

Lynn is in a lopsided relationship. While her boyfriend is on the way up on the back of his English language skills and can-do attitude, Lynn is stuck in flight attendant school. In order to bring in some extra cash she agrees to have her egg cells harvested for rich clients looking for pedigreed offspring of ‘high IQ and good DNA’. A pre-operation medical check-up reveals that she is pregnant, and her unsupportive boyfriend pushes her towards having an abortion. Her mother, who works as an unsalaried saleswoman for a multilevel marketing company selling medical products, can get her hands on cheap abortion pills, so Lynn moves in with her parents for a while. When she finds out her mother is in debt with her boss for causing an accident that led to his cousin losing a baby, Lynn suggests that she carry the baby to term and donate it to them in order to settle the debt. This sets her off on a path that sees her, bit by bit, lose the autonomy over not only her own body but that of her unborn child as well.

For a country that is (ostensibly) communist and a culture that is rooted in collectivism, the sheer amount of individualism and selfishness on display around the protagonist of Stonewalling shows that these are thin layers of veneer on top of what at its heart strongly resembles a capitalist system. The film shows how introverted, timid individuals like Lynn, especially because she is in the vulnerable position of a young woman in a traditionally very patriarchal and gerontocratically organized society, are ground to dust in such a system. Lynn’s pregnancy is used as currency, her baby discussed as part of a transaction. Everything is focused on gain, either monetary or in status, without regard for the well-being of either mother or child.

These are themes that, either directly or tangentially, return from the directors’ previous work, but the increased focus on the economic drivers behind the behaviour of the supporting cast are expanded upon, and a more direct and poignant criticism of China’s policies becomes blunt and brutal (this film never would have passed China’s censorship board if it had to be submitted to it). At one point Lynn takes on a temporary job as an overseer of a group of girls all in the business of what she originally intended: to have their eggs harvested for profit in a market in which the rich outsource creating offspring, provided the source of the eggs meets their standards of intelligence and looks. Many of these girls are Uyghur, an ethnic minority brutally oppressed by the Chinese government. While this detail is not entirely relevant to Lynn’s story, it underlines the soulless disregard for human life that has permeated the system, while also being the film’s most pointed criticism.

The film’s steady, methodical building of the plot, underplaying the drama with its calm gaze, paradoxically aids in making the criticism stick: by the time we reach the final scene, the factual accumulation of Lynn’s predicament suddenly hits the audience like a wave, which makes the ambiguous ending linger and leaves ample room for reflection on her 150-minute journey from somewhat docile and insecure but promising young woman to empty shell. That journey is long, yes, but also magnetic in its stoicism, and Stonewalling is testament to the idea that to build a compelling narrative one does not have to rely on excessive dramatic gesture. In the film’s prologue a cosmopolitan acquaintance of Lynn and her boyfriend remarks that “life is all about going with the flow“. If the film proves anything, it’s that this is only an easy thing to say when you are successful.