“Meili” is a film that brushes up decades old rules of art-house production to show they still can add a spin to an independent/art-house film when done with some wits, but, in the same time, trips on the clichés of art-house storytelling that allows its heroes only to suffer and leaves them only two possible solutions: a road to unknown or an act of violence.
The premises of Zhou Zhou`s feature debut bring up an image of a mundane Chinese life that mixes small traces of the usual traditional demands of working hard(er), respecting your family elders and your bosses, avoiding losing your face nor allowing anyone to lose theirs, with at least two unusuals that offer many stories. In her early twenties, Meili works a humdrum laundry shop manual job during the days, and the nights, she takes care of her girlfriend (!) whose professional duties include partying with the bosses. She is psychologically abused by her good-for-nothing brother-in-law and partially her older sister too as a „thank you“ for being a surrogate (!) for their child. Simply put, Meili’s life is a circle of unfortunate events with occasional rays of light. Still, these seem to be omens before a slope.
Yes, whatever life Meili has, starts falling apart. She loses her job, her girlfriend informs her that it would be inappropriate if Meili joined her on the business trip to Shanghai, the brother- in-law does what seems to be the usual just in a little bit more intensive way, pushing Meili’s sister into running from home into somewhere safer and then blaming Meili for all the bad things that have ever happened to him. Despite the occasional helpful acts of Meili’s friends, things just go bad to worse. It soon becomes quite obvious that the story of Ms. Meili won’t end up with a jolly Shakespearean happy end.
“Meili” is one of those films that fits the Singin’ in the Rain Kathy’s sigh: „You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,“ yet it allows to show some strong sides of Zhou Zhou as a film-maker. The film basically complies with most of the DOGMA 95 rules (yes, we speak more than 20 years back). Not being novelty even to non-Dogmatic Asian art-house, the lack of non-diegetic music still comes as the most striking and functional. Besides the fact that it accentuates emotions of the moment(s) when the music is used, it shifts the attention to other aspects of the film that are, logically, left to build up the atmosphere. The lack of musical cues also reduces the sense of space and adds on austerity. The isolation is enhanced by the choice of camera constantly following Meili, only leaving her for a few short moments to find her in the situation, all the time inducing the effect of closeness with the character on one hand, but also the feeling that there are no other routes or ways of moving and living.
This also means a heavy load on Chi Yun and her acting. It is only fair to say that no matter how long a take, she never falters, never falls out of the moment, nor the mood-line, portraying Meili with gentle bravado and understanding, showing a complex of emotion and processes rather than narrowing them down into a sad or other appropriate face lasting from „roll“ to „cut“. Her acting, the constant camera tracking and the deafness of the soundscape work together.
Unfortunately for “Meili”, the script fails to outmanoeuvre the schemes fortified by years of practice as the best ever for THE independent art-house film. A tricky route that sacrifices the logic of the narrative for the sake of mimicking life in the suffering, forgetting that film might be life-LIKE but copying the real life situations might render them unbelievable and made up. It seems that it is unthinkable to portray the heaviness of harsh life in a low-key mode. Hence the script (by Zhou Zhou and Chi Yun) that keeps pushing Meili into reactions that are actually out of her character just to justify her final choice. Here, even very precise direction of Zhou Zhou and fascinating acting of Chi Yun cannot cover and the moments feel fake, unbelievable and disruptive.
In the end, we have a film here that takes the mundane, murky life but cares to think about the characters, details to perhaps differentiate “Meili” from other films and even bothers to come up with a very fitting style of storytelling to nourish that bleak feel, but loses its edges and becomes one of the many „small“ independent films that end up being slave of the art-house cinema formulas rather than their masters.