Borders, real and symbolic, structure our existence. Whether simply lines on a map or heavily fortified physical barriers, they offer us a sense of belonging, stability and identity. So when we cross these boundaries, we enter unfamiliar liminal worlds full of uncertainties. But if daunting, these strange new worlds are also sites for reinvention and discovery. Freeing us from a straightjacket of restrictive social codes and customs, they offer us the thrilling opportunity to try on any costume we like.
Bai Xue’s directorial debut follows 16-year-old Peipei (Huang Yao) as she navigates various opposing realities in her school uniform. Traversing daily between her dysfunctional home in mainland China and her school in Hong Kong, Peipei finds herself at the border separating rich from poor, childhood from adulthood, and normal life from criminal activity. The teenager, intent on spending Christmas with her best friend in expensive Japan, then falls in with a band of smartphone smugglers, blossoming slowly from a shy schoolgirl into a self-reliant young adult.
Peipei’s split existence is brilliantly articulated by Piao Songri’s eloquent camerawork. Scenes in Shenzhen are predominantly framed through still compositions, while those in Hong Kong, shot with handheld cameras, are full of frenzied movement, visually contrasting a stale family context with a fast-paced life of crime. In Songri’s able hands Hong Kong is transformed into a character in its own right, grimy alleys and fluorescent high streets infusing the drama with a hazy dreamlike lustre.
Huang Yao’s impressive debut performance further reinforces this sense of a girl suspended between identities. Much like Peipei’s innocent school uniform hides the tens of counterfeit phones strapped to her body, Huang Yao’s persuasive acting animates a character whose gestures and expressions first suggest a bashfully timid girl to later reveal a boldly audacious woman surprisingly unsurprised by a dramatic turn of events.
In her first internationally featured film, Bai Xue refrains from making divisive political statements. Rather than examine the borders of sovereignty, the Chinese director chooses to explore something much more intimate: the moving tale of an adolescent girl crossing the terrifying space between opposites.
The Crossing is released in select cinemas on 22nd March 2019.
Watch the trailer for The Crossing here: