Tears and Fears

"Don't tell anybody about what you've seen," a strong-willed matriarch warns her daughter-in-law in the quiet soap opera Women from the Lake of Scented Souls. "If you do," the threat continues, "I'll tear your tongue out." Misery endured in a type of silence that screams out on screen is one key to why this seemingly placid film turns out to be so devastating.

Set in a rural Chinese coastal village, Women from the Lake of Scented Souls is considerably more tragic than its idyllic locale and graceful title suggest. Xiang (Siqin Gaowa), the matriarch, is the driving force behind her family's small sesame oil-making business. The oil is so pure that it attracts Japanese investors, who want to know Xiang's secret to success before making her a rich woman. She tells them that it's the water: taken from the lotus-covered lake winding around the village, the water is said to have been sweetened generations earlier by the tears of two young girls who drowned themselves in it over lost love. Though legend has it that the girls' bodies were never found (the legend has it they flew off in the form of birds), it becomes clear that Xiang was one of the girls. Sold to her worthless husband, Que (Lei Luosheng), at the age of seven and married at 13, she endures the lazy and abusive drunk in part through the pleasures of a long affair with Ren (Chen Baoguo), the man over whom she once shed those adolescent tears.

We never find out who the other girl in the story was, but symbolically it's Huanhuan (Wu Yujuan). From a poor peasant family, Huanhuan is forced into an arranged marriage when Xiang -- who has a simple-minded grown son upon whom she dotes, a son who, tiring of his stuffed doll, demands a real woman instead -- offers to buy her by paying off her family's debts. More than once, Huanhuan sheds mute tears by the ever-present lake.

Huanhuan also loves another, and she too must abide a husband's maulings. Ultimately, Huanhuan's lover leaves over money; Xiang's lover ends their affair in part because Xiang, now in her 30s, is, he says, "past middle age." Thus the sorrow of the movie is threefold. One: perseverance, willfulness and energy aside, Xiang's life is sadly constricted. Two: Huanhuan's fate seems similarly doomed. Three (and most wrenching): despite their interlocked trials, these women, bound by old-world values that extend deference into stoicism, can't figure out how to share their grief.

Writer/director Xie Fei is effortlessly subtle in making this movie reflect still waters that run deep. The ooze of the oil out of the sesame seeds suggests circumspect passion from the women's point of view. The camera gazes at men's torsos, not women's. It gives time to bruises as well as to flowers. In one scene, Huanhuan is lying on the roof with her husband, who suddenly clenches her in a fit; in the apartment below, Xiang is in the arms of her lover. Just as Xiang spies Huanhuan sobbing after being abused on her wedding day, Huanhuan overhears Xiang trying to cope with her own physical torments. When the women finally try to create a moment of empathy, one of them is hanging laundry in such a way that she's silhouetted, their intimacy still one degree removed. Throughout the film, Xie returns to the lifeblood lake, a visual source of romance and grief.

Occasionally, Xie is lazy, employing the convenience of an unlocked back door to lead to one discovery and using a drunken reverie to prevent another. But in one particularly glorious instance he's obviously working both hard and successfully. It comes when Xiang is finally given a good cry: it's an overcast day in a sesame seed field, the wind-blown grain sounding like rain. "Human life has a long way to go," she sighs later. Generation after generation just keeps rolling along, the ebbs never seeming to fall away and the flows never seeming to come without waves. As the filmmaker and his understated performers take you out on their lake of soap operatic life, they tug at your tranquillity.

Women from the Lake of Scented Souls.
Directed by Xie Fei. With Siqin Gaowa and Wu Yujuan. Not rated.
106 minutes.

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