Directing duo Ji Huang and Ryuji Otsuka have signed their spot in 2023’s lineup with a film that burns like a tea candle: low, slow, and with little attention to its own flame. “Stonewalling” is not a self-aggrandizing film. It doesn’t relish in its beauty, profundity, or efficacy. It is subtle and modest in its meditation.
“Stonewalling” tracks the life of 20-year-old Lynn (Honggui Yao), a flight attendant in training who navigates a surprise pregnancy amidst a relationship and culture that views her as a project and a pawn. China’s one-child policy, rescinded in 2016 (three years before the film’s time frame), still maintains the looming legacy of a puppetmaster’s hand. While the strings of the marionette may be beginning to dust over, the influence of the policy hovers over the nation as its citizens are faced with the responsibility of autonomy and the shifted possibility of what a family unit can look like.
Lynn is in school but notably disinterested. Her boyfriend pays for her to learn English, but she’s content to bow out. She attends social gatherings but stalks on the sidelines until ultimately deciding to jump ship. We don’t know much about her because she often refuses to do anything but sit, stare, scroll, and murmur. But as Lynn is confronted with the uncertainty of the future, she fronts the decision of an abortion to her boyfriend while moving forward with her pregnancy and the options of what to do with her child once it’s born. This pregnancy is the first time Lynn commits to anything, and the motivating yet pointedly misguided ghost of a purpose begins to form within her.
Stillness has a sovereign grip on the film’s feel. Camera movement is rare in the depiction of Lynn’s world. We are not moving through China but hopping and skipping through a series of rigid vignettes. There is a palpable sense of distance as the camera is still: a coldness that reinforces Lynn’s speck-on-the-radar existence, hammered in by the fact that she blends into every space she occupies.
From cramped, dingy street shops to bright, bustling conference halls and everything in between, every space in the film has a direct effect on Lynn’s state of mind. She is forced into corners of the frame, while her location and the external characters take a spatial priority. Yet she becomes the focus due to her self-isolation, a sore spot in the frame just as she feels in her own body.
While it’s the stunning photography that seizes the eye, it’s Honggui Yao’s performance that entraps it, sustaining the film’s lure through its runtime. She embodies Lynn with down-to-earth excellence. There are no fireworks to her depiction: no dramatic monologues or flashy emotional displays. Lynn is meek and languid, and Yao manifests a combination of timidity and persistence with complete empathetic effect. There is desperation in Lynn, but also a quiet strength that she embodies as she moves through the world. She is not pathetic. Lynn walks uphill against the wind, but she is trekking the terrain regardless, and Yao masterfully personifies these levels and, often, without words.
The film’s writing is what supports Yao’s versatile, layered performance. The script’s restraint etches a character with true history, yet this history is an assumption, which is its ultimate strength. “Stonewalling” is a filmic leap into life, not a document of characteristics fed via outline. Lynn doesn’t receive much of an introduction nor a heavy-handed list of contexts and antecedents. The film's skeleton is made mobile by Yao’s performance, which takes off from a place of everyday authenticity and mundanity, and trucks on without catering to questions.
For a young woman in an environment that treats her life based on its proximity to and potential for wavering to male sensibilities, an unexpected pregnancy can feel like a decree of finality. Lynn’s life is defined by what her femininity can provide, and we watch her discover what a trap that is. Whether it’s being beautiful enough to be a receptionist for a wealthy man, selling her eggs, or even her pregnancy itself, “Stonewalling” presents the social entrapment of commodified womanhood.
“Stonewalling” is a moving, slow burn of a character study, as well as an examination of female stagnancy, personally and politically. There is a striking, human sense of suspense to the film as we worry for Lynn, and root for her to find her power. "Stonewalling" feels utterly present and on the pulse of the question of what it means to be a young woman in modern China, in terms of pushing through class barriers and social ones. Lynn is a to-the-touch character that feels lived in, honest, and familiar, and as “Stonewalling” pilots her existence, it raises questions of where and when femininity and the fatigue of immobility come to a head.
Now playing in select theaters.