Casual corruption, bossy neighbors who know everybody’s business, and omnipresent loudspeakers squawking about official policies and propaganda all day long make the Chinese town depicted in Huan Huan feel pretty bleak. Unfortunately, the film is almost as drab and demoralizing as the place it portrays. Huan Huan, an off-puttingly sullen and unaccountably sought-after teenager, is having an affair with the local doctor, who she seems to be with mainly because he’s her ticket to the out-of-town job she needs to get out of this place. She thinks she’s out of sight of prying eyes when they meet in the tall grass by Fuxian Lake to have joyless sex. But she isn’t fooling anyone, including Dr. Wang’s wife, the village cadre, a humorless bureaucrat whose only pleasure in life seems to be illegal gambling. (She’s big on making sure nobody breaks any rules unless it happens to be one that doesn’t suit her.)
Pregnancy, infertility, blackmail, bribery and murder are just a few of the items that are ticked off in perfunctory fashion by the pointed script; you might call it a soap opera if only there were more blood in its veins. The entire thing looks as if it was shot on the cheap, with an amateur camcorder and a cast of impassive non-professionals. The town and nearly everyone in it look so shutdown and miserable that a sturdy little puppy steals the show every time it wanders into frame. Huan Huan is such a grim vision of life under communism that you wonder why it was submitted to this year’s New Directors/New Films by a Chinese official (the film’s press blurb thanks the Chinese Consulate General in New York). Have things changed so much in the last five years that this government is eager to show whoever was in charge back then in a bad light? Or is this just one of those trial balloons of protest they’re allowing people to release these days, for whatever reason?