STONEWALLING – Review by Nadine Whitney
Writer/director Huang Ji and her life partner cinematographer Ryûji Otsuka have a complex relationship to “Westernized” China, or more specifically capitalism in China. Stonewalling forms part of a loose trilogy investigating contemporary China and its social and cultural mores.
Twenty-year-old Lynn (Honggui Yao) is part of the upwardly mobile generation. She is studying to be a flight attendant in Changsha and sharing rarefied spaces with her influencer boyfriend Zhang (Liu Long) who dreams of leaving China. To an extent Lynn is a means to his end, Her career as a flight attendant will give him access to the international world. He’s enrolls her in English classes and insists that she courts the “right people” to aid in their chances of making it.
Lynn’s life is more complex than it first appears. Her mother is in debt after having to cover a botched procedure at the family’s gynecology clinic. Lynn is paying her mother’s debt by taking jobs modeling cheap clothing and jewelry, and she becomes part of a black-market ring to sell her eggs to wealthy people.
When Lynn realizes she’s pregnant and tells Zhang (in a scene meticulously constructed to show the power dynamics of the relationship), he bemoans the inconvenience but won’t outright tell her to get an abortion — because he doesn’t want Lynn blaming him for it. His lack of interest in the fetus and Lynn track with his general character. While Lynn tries to decide what to do, she moves to the city outskirts where her parents live .
Lynn doesn’t quite belong in either of her worlds. Her mother has all but abandoned her clinic and is now working in a shady pyramid scheme selling “Vital Cream” for Boss (Cui Chu). Her parents’ relationship is strained and as their only child (China’s one child policy was only rescinded three years prior to the events in the film) it falls upon her to take care of them no matter what foolish decisions they’ve made.
As a way of paying off her mother’s debt she agrees to have the baby and give it to Boss’ relative Sylvia who lost her child due to some malpractice (perhaps) by Lynn’s mother. If the debt is paid off, Lynn will be free of some of the financial responsibilities placed on her. She’ll be able to resume her life in Changsha and no-one will be the wiser about the pregnancy, including Zhang.
Lynn, who has been exploited by China’s new capitalist gig economy. is not above exploiting other women. She gets involved again in the black-market egg sales and this time she is presenting young women from rural provinces who have even less agency over their bodies than she has had.
Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka favor a pulled back cinematic approach. Wide shots are favored over close-ups. In a sense, Lynn could be any young woman who is trying to find a route out her passive role in Chinese society. Being a college student puts her in an emerging social class, but she still belongs to the proletariat who struggle to survive in a transitioning China. She is above the young women she is a “caretaker” for in the black-market scheme, but below Zhang and the emerging wealth that comes from being a TikTok influencer.
In one scene she exclaims to her mother “I’m an easy mark,” and that extends to many of the young women (and older women) in the film. Although Stonewalling is about Lynn’s experiences it is also about the experiences of hundreds of young people in China. Lynn’s pregnancy is seen as suffocating and alienating her, her body is not her own – but arguably her body was not her own before she conceived. As Lynn fights for some form of autonomy Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka question whether it is possible at all.
Stonewalling is a slow-burn and a somewhat long film that is rich in symbolism and metaphor but also gets to the point. What true autonomy do people have in capitalist China? How does the gig economy allow for them to succeed, and what are the chances for women who still live under the patriarchal strictures of a society that was supposed to be built on equality? The final scene gives a vague answer, but like the rest of the film it is more of a hanging question. Is there freedom in contemporary China, and if so, how much does it really cost.