Ji Huang and Ryûji Otsuka’s Stonewalling is, in a rare and striking move, both quiet and visceral, a slice-of-life film where you can feel the knife doing the slicing. This is a film grounded in precise physical and sensory details: a sore and throbbing breast, a dance done for a stranger, masks and antimicrobial spray, the way a baby’s crying goes on and on. The value of these experiences is ruthlessly assessed, because Stonewalling‘s contemporary China is bristling with capitalism, and the body and all its sensations are just more products to be deemed either marketable or useless.
The gig economy means the subtly alienated Lynn (Honggui Yao) drifts from street advertising–placidly standing outside in a princess-style gown, like living artwork–to selling her eggs for a semi-legitimate, semi-under-the-table agency. But she soon finds out that she’s not a fit candidate at the moment: she’s pregnant. Her ambitious middle-class boyfriend wants her to have an abortion, mostly to preserve the investment he’s already made in her English classes. Lynn chooses a riskier and more arduous path, striking a handshake deal to use the baby to erase her mother’s debt. In the abstract, selling a baby is high drama; in Stonewalling, it’s curiously prosaic. You worry less about the morality and more about the lack of a binding contract.
Lynn’s pregnancy provides the film with a framework and plenty of material for its episodic plot. In following her through months of jobs and family stress, we start to see that this pregnancy, as unwanted and surprising as it’s been, has at least given her some brief sense of value. It just has nothing to do with potential motherhood or the “miracle of life.” She simply seems less out-of-her-depth, like she’s wringing some thorny sense of pride out of the fact that at last her contributions are both sufficient and, in most ways, out of her hands. Feeling that there is a success on the horizon if she can just quietly endure all the discomfort in the meantime gives her the spark she was missing in her earlier scenes. Her gradually strengthened sense of self-worth is poignant, but it’s also so depressingly tenuous; it’s a win that comes not even from any #girlboss but from a #girlgig one. Stonewalling leans into that discomfort, making us feel what it’s like to be so dependent on other people’s whims. To be as desperate for real, workable options as you are for air.
Stonewalling is streaming on the Criterion Channel.