When she auditioned for her role in Aliens, Jenette Goldstein is said to have misunderstood the subject of the movie and shown up dressed as an illegal immigrant. The same confusion is on display in Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes, but it’s carried out by incompetent or scheming bureaucrats whose livelihood depends on spinning the not-quite-supernatural object of the title into a tale of patriotic uplift. If the description “rural China-set satirical sci-fi mockumentary” doesn’t clue you into the oddity of Guo’s film, then perhaps the following will: Udo Kier, of all people, plays the “alien” (really just a Westerner who lands in a field one day) and the catalytic event occurs on September 11. The latter detail at first seems incidental, but when camera crews arrive on the scene to investigate every member of the tiny Three-Headed Fish Village and ask them where they were on said date, the politically charged nature of the film comes into focus for the first, but certainly not last, time.
Kwok Yun (Ke Shi), the woman at the center of all this, quickly becomes a lightning rod of publicity for the fledgling village. Seen early on wearing a t-shirt that reads “IS THIS THE FUTURE?,” she eventually gets profiled in an American magazine, receives a lump sum from the Chinese government, and watches as her entire village is turned into a UFO-themed tourist attraction. (There are echoes of Up the Yangtze and The World here, but Guo’s take on her country’s burgeoning globalization-cum-capitalism is more overtly farcical.) Absurdity abounds here, whether in the form of a faux-UFO that answers our heroine’s shirt with the proclamation “THIS IS THE FUTURE,” a brass ensemble performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or a couple of school kids reading a typically graphic excerpt of Henry Miller’s seminal Tropic of Cancer aloud (one woman asks, “Is it about our village?”). Points to Guo, who both wrote and directed this adaptation of her own novel, for managing not to bring down every other element along with the plot as it descends into ridiculousness, but UFO in Her Eyes doesn’t always amount to much more than a clever premise. Guo is sometimes so literal that, initial strangeness notwithstanding, she ultimately leaves too little room for the viewer to figure out the film on his or her own. She repeatedly hammers home a central idea (namely, the folly of delusional nationalism—is there any other kind?—carried out by the peasantry), but isn’t quite curious or ambitious enough for much else to stick.
Even so, the serio-comic technique and ping-ponging aesthetics ultimately make for a winning approach. When Kier arrives back on the scene for a grand celebration, the film shows its true colors—and they’re more than a little red, white, and blue. Happily confused, he gets toasted, sings his hosts a song, and launches into the best, most troubling third-act dance sequence this side of Mother and Lourdes. “You must be so happy,” he says to Kwok Yun upon seeing her state-mandated, Americanized makeover. The look on her face suggests otherwise.