One has not necessarily to refer to authors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul or to Asian dream cinema in order to stress the importance, in cinema, of rendering tangible ghosts, spirits, and other imaginative presences. And this practice does not only concern cinema; at least since Goethe’s Erlkönig, literature (mainly romantic) has also explored the many aspects of this materialisation of imagination, and has been an important wellspring for cinema. Here, with Niu Xiaoyu’s first feature, we sink into a world – the one of the young Yezi – where characters from the past and other spirits saturate the space of her room, her apartment, the garden she usually goes to. Do these spaces simply become her psychic agora, a sort of theatre of the soul? Through the delicate relationship with her grandmother, who starts suffering from dementia, we even lose reliable references in time. Memories, the past and the present melt together, largely thanks to the “presence” of her grandfather, who recently (?) passed away.
The film insists almost obsessively on putting Yezi’s internal forum forward, a radicalisation that could appear redundant, but which serves a specific dramaturgic role. Yezi confesses that she does not want to leave her childhood and become an adult: this is probably the fundamental key to reading the obsessive materialisation of imagination, not just as a symbolic fantasy but as a form of resistance against the outer world, the world of the adults, a world that goes beyond the comfortable bubble of family.
There is more than this motive of a difficult coming of age in Niu Xiaoyu’s film though, for she is able to create a distance from Yezi’s closed universe. She directly talks, as director, to the grandmother, who appears to be her own grandmother, in the flat that is her own flat. This puzzling gesture reveals the documentary layer of Virgin Blue, that thereby assume the form of auto-fiction, putting Yezi into the role of a fictional alter ego of the filmmaker herself. In this way, we can feel the separation from Yezi, and therefore from her dominating interiority. We are not just in her world, but look at her world – assuming the perspective of the filmmaker. The heterogeneity of formal elements and settings, also including real children choreography and comic drawings (by Niu Xiaoyu herself), reinforces this effect of detachment from Yezi’s exploration of her inner world.
Through this film therefore we both live and observe a universe in which childhood memories and demented perception coalesce. Through this film we experience and observe a kind of imaginative autism, which speaks perfectly for childhood, probably dementia, and certainly the specificity of cinema world – and finally the intriguing continuity between childhood, dementia, and cinema… That is why we could say that Yezi is also the spokeswoman for the interiority of cinematic perception, and Niu Xiaoyu its witness, both involved and distant.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: August 18, 2021
Virgin Blue – Bu yao zai jian a, Yu hua tanga | Film | Niu Xiaoyu | CHN 2021 | 100’ | Locarno Film Festival 2021, Cineasti del presente