BIFF 2014 #4: A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013)

Sang Juan (left) as Li-fei and  Huang Lu as YaYa

Sang Juan (left) as Li-fei and Huang Lu as YaYa

Portrait Without BleedThis feature is part of Bradford’s European Competition which seems odd because it isn’t ‘European’ in content and only marginally so in finance as far as I can see – though much of the creative input is. Writer-director Conrad Clark is a Brit living in China and this film is a development of a short produced in 2010. Cinematographer Raquel Fernandez Nuñez is Spanish and editor Paul Monaghan is from the UK and has worked with Michael Winterbottom for Revolution Films. What we are offered is a genuine ‘global/local’ story set in the community of temporary migrants that constitutes the bulk of the population of the United Arab Emirates. The ‘fallible girl’ of the title might be Li-fei who with her fellow Chinese YaYa has become an entrepreneur and opened a mushroom farm in the desert between Dubai (where the two women have a small apartment) and Abu Dhabi.

A Fallible Girl has a very distinctive aesthetic which utilises a wobbly handheld camera often framing in close-up as it moves between faces. Lighting at times gives a soft washed-out look suffused in pinks and blues (and yellows in the mushroom houses). The electronic (?) music soundtrack by Orchestra Plastique and Víg Mihály works very well with the visuals and I eventually adjusted to the feel of the film (having come to terms with that wobbly camera).

The ideas behind the film are certainly interesting as Dubai is home to so many different groups of migrant workers. I’m not sure that we see many ‘locals’ except as figures in the background. Li-fei has a European boyfriend who has an apartment by the beach with a Philippina (?) maid. Li-fei’s mushroom farm employs (according to the synopsis) Bangladeshi men and her driver/translator is called Abdullah but doesn’t appear to be local. She meets a Pakistani truck driver and the shopkeepers are Indians. Most of the film seems to be set in a downtown district of Dubai with busy streets and roadside stalls like many towns in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia – this isn’t the Dubai of Western hotels.

Li-fei at the mushroom farm

Li-fei at the mushroom farm

If I’d had to guess at the nationality of the film, I would have said Chinese. At various points I thought of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (1995), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001) and Chinese independent films such as Suzhou River (2000) – all because of atmosphere and mood. The Winterbottom connection is interesting since he used the Emirates as an ‘exotic’ location in his science fiction film Code 46 (2003) but also shot migrants/refugees passing through the wider region in In This World (2002). The sense that territories like the Emirates are both ‘modern’ but also mired in the social problems of post-industrial capitalism is also there in The Fallible Girl. It certainly got me thinking and I enjoyed the film in the main. Two strange sequences puzzled me. In one Li-fei’s driver goes to eat in a canteen and meets a fellow migrant worker to discuss going home. Though clearly in keeping with the theme, this felt like it was part of a documentary shot by somebody else. Much more of a problem is a sequence of archive footage of the Emirates, seemingly taken from low-resolution video sources and therefore heavily pixellated. It looked horrendous on a large screen. I’m assuming that this was a budget problem – similar footage must surely be available on 16mm film?

There is relatively little conventional plot in the film. Li-fei’s business is struggling and she also has problems with her boyfriend and with her friend/business partner YaYa. What we get is less a straight story and more a meditation on migration, home, social networks etc. The film succeeds I think because Sang Juan in what appears to be her first film role as Li-fei  is such a strong presence. She is shown as a ‘real’ human being, not always likeable as she shouts abuse at other women drivers – in fact she shouts at everyone using her basic English. But she works hard and she treats her workers fairly. They seem to respect her.

In his introduction Neil Young expressed surprise that the film had not been shown in the UK since its Rotterdam premiere. It felt to me to be very much a ‘festival film’ unlikely to get a theatrical release but certainly well worth seeing – and I’m glad I did.

Vimeo trailer:

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