Huang Ji uses minimal devices to capture the unspoken love, anxious waiting and muffled desperation of an unwanted teenage girl in a small village in China. A humbling film.
China has the largest population and the highest abortion rates in the world, thanks to the One-Child Policy and its ancient tradition of son preference. In the past, girl births would be discouraged: girl fetuses get aborted and baby girls abandoned until the national ban of sex-selective abortions in 1994. Things changed a lot since then. But people, especially the poor living in rural areas, still believe boys are better as they are stronger; they can work and earn more in the future while girls are mere black sheep of the family.
There are a large number of girls who are fortunate enough to be granted birth, yet not so fortunate to be granted dignity and equal opportunity as their male peers or secretly-born younger brothers are. They are either sent to orphanages or poorer relative’s, or left behind in the village living with the elderly while the parents are pursuing a more profitable life in cities far away from home.
The female protagonist Honggui, a 14-year-old quiet “left-behind” girl living with her uncle and aunt who run a clinic in a village, while her parents are far away building a fortune with a younger son, Honggui’s little brother. Her life is most uneventful: school, girl talk, daily chores, people in the clinic and an equally quiet puppy love, except that from the very beginning of the film, she suffers the anxiety and fear of expecting her long due menstruation.
Egg and Stone is not yet another film about “teen pregnancy”: there’re no intense conflicts, no visual melodrama, no explicit accusation. Just a shy girl goes through a disturbed chilly winter. After that, she welcomes her liberation upon her opening the bedroom door up on a hill, through which wind blows in. It smells spring.
According to Huang Ji, egg and stone are metaphorical representations of a young girl: an arbitrary integrity. As a “left-behind” teenager, Honggui is helpless and silenced in many ways. The filmmaker has managed to present Honggui’s wordless suffocation in claustrophobic settings. She also succeeds in ushering non-professional actors into a convincing performance by using ambient light and their real life mise en scène.
Huang Ji jokingly says it is a two-man crew (or more specifically, a couple crew) with herself functioning the writer, sound engineer and director; and her seven-year-long boyfriend Ryuji Otsuka, an experienced professional, the cinematographer, who contributes to the film’s controlled aesthetics and stylistic simplicity. They got married towards the end of its post-production. Not long after receiving the Hivos Tiger Award in IFFR 2012, she gave birth to a baby girl. Huang Ji is now composing her second feature.
The film Egg and Stone reminds me of Sylvia Plath, only calmer.
After the screening in Bio Grand, I found that I was so fascinated by this film that I literally took notes of every scene:
Scene 1: Honggui sits on the bed, her face covered by her long hair and the duvet is half open. She is fingering the blood spot on her thigh. Her hand reaches into her shorts. She walks to the window, blocking the window view with thick brown package paper. She then covers her head with a pillow, suffocating while there is an anxious knock on the door. When the sound of footsteps fades into the distance, she let out a big heavy sigh.
Scene 2: Early in the morning, Honggui’s Uncle squats in front of the house, brushing his teech. Meanwhile, inside her bedroom, Honggui puts off her shorts and reveals a spotless piece of toilet paper. She folds a new piece, sets it between her thighs puts on her pants, let out another sigh, and walks out of the room.
Scene 3: Uncle is cleaning the glass surface of the cupboard in his clinic. Honggui enters, carefully evading his gaze.
Scene 4: Honggui takes a bag of eggs to meet a boy (supposedly, her ‘secret’ boyfriend, as shy as her). He rides a motorcycle, and Honggui goes on the same motor without a word. The two stop at a huge rock pile. The boy counts the eggs while Honggui stands facing the rock hill, back towards the audience. He calls “Honggui”, gives her a stone, and continues with a gentle order “you stay here, waiting for the bus; I’m now off to work”. He walks towards the stone mine.
Scene 5: Inside a room, one girl pleads Honggui: “You must help me so that my parents won’t feel it necessary to adopt a boy.”
Scene 6: Honggui’s Aunt is answering a call from Honggui’s mother, her elder sister, who is in a far-away city doing business. Uncle is washing vegetables for the next meal nearby. The dialogue indicates Honggui has overstayed her welcome: as the supposed two years of Honggui’s custody here has turned out to be seven years, with no obvious sign of an end.
Scene 7: Honggui is knocking something really loud: as the camera slides down, it shows that she is using the stone seal from her boy the other day. Aunt shouts: “Why don’t you go to sleep? Make all these noises!” Honggui drags the seal hard and makes a bright red line on the paper.
Scene 8: A P.E. class in the school. After high knees exercise, Honggui washes her hands with tap water by the playground and she discovers the toilet paper has fallen off. She daftly covers it with her feet but still spotted and mocked by boys not far away from her, shouting: “Honggui, gross! Gross!”
Scene 9: Uncle is giving a child an injection and offers him candy afterwards. The women by him are gossiping: “She is only 16, but molested by her father and is forced an abortion.”
Scene 10: Honggui is drying her hair while Aunt enters and complains her of using too much hot water that there would be not enough to make tea for four people. Aunt declares: “You know I have guests!”
Scene 11: At night, Honggui holds the stone seal, covers her head with duvet and fall asleep.
Scene 12: In the stone mine, the boy is digging chucks of rock, wearing a headlamp.
Scene 13: Honggui arrives at the photographer’s, too shy to enter, as there are two men talking inside. After the men’s leave, she reaches a coffin portrait and holds it for delivery. The boy with motorcycle gives her a ride. It stops at a certain point. The boy tries several times to restart it.
Scene 14: The photo is for a blind man. He holds a cigarette up to his lips, touches the portrait for a long time to make sure everything is alright. After a while, he asks: “The portrait feels OK.” “Is it a full-length or a half-length?” –“Half-length.” “Are my Huqin and shades with me?” –“Yes, they are.” “Do I look good?” –“Yes, you look good.” The boy then makes a practical joke on the man: they hang the photo upside down. Honggui giggles: “Oh, aren’t you creative!” The man is talking to himself: “Where do the kids hang my photo?
Scene 15: In Honggui’s bedroom. The pleading girl cheerfully declares: “An honorable moment is coming!” She then asks Honggui: “Why don’t you let me to draw a portrait for you? You know, I’d be very happy to have it as a souvenir. Carry on a little longer and I’ll finish it soon.”
Scene 16: Pouring rain. Inside the clinic, an old woman is taking an IV drip by a Mahjong table of four enthusiastic players while in front of a grocery, Uncle is talking to the phone: “Send someone with an umbrella! You won’t play Mahjong all night long, will you?! I won’t go to fetch your mother’s coffin portrait if you don’t send me an umbrella!” A faint flashlight dims in sight: Uncle gets no umbrella after all and is caught a wet hen.
Scene 17: Honggui is staring at a picture of a young couple for a long time and at last pick up the phone. “Hello? Who is this? Long Long? (a common name for a Chinese boy) Is mom in?” The voice of a little boy: “I don’t know.” “Can you ask her to answer the phone?” “She is fixing my bath water!” “Oh, then you tell her to call back, OK?” “OK.” Honggui cleans the table. The screen shows a silent telephone. A view from the outside through the window reveals a still anticipating Honggui.
Scene 18: Uncle is peeling garlic and walks towards Honggui, pushes her with both hands: “You take your grandma’s photo to the photo studio.”
Scene 19: Honggui’s boyfriend plays the switch: off and on, off and on. There is a disco ball. “I guess it used to be a dance club.” Honggui, wearing a skirt, is taken photos with her Uncle in several poses. “OK. Smile like she is your own daughter. Good.”
Scene 20: Grandma walking through the woods, following Honggui in a skirt. Her boyfriend is playing mischievous and shaking the trees. For the second time, Honggui’s hair is bond high up. Wind blows in as the door opens. Her face looks soothing.
Scene 21: Grandma talks to Grandpa’s coffin portrait: “I have prepared mine today.” The boy wanders about. Voices of pigs, chicken and flies. Grandma is still praying while Honggui sits at the threshold. The boy asks: “Can we leave now?”
Scene 22: In Grandma’s bedroom, Honggui asks the meaning of Blood Basin Sutra and gets an answer that if there is not enough menstrual blood, the female’s blood would be all sucked up by the Yama as a punishment for her sin. Honggui holds the Sutra, disturbed. A scenery shot (with a clear Japanese cinematography style showing the clothes outside the room)。
Scene 23: Honggui sits in a bathing basin, looking at a mirror to examine her vagina. Nothing she expects is happening.
Scene 24: She sits by the bed, removes her underwear, wraps Blood Basin Sutra inside of a piece of toilet paper and carefully puts on her underwear. She then falls asleep.
Scene 25: (Somebody’s. Not sure if its is Grandma as at the end of the film there is another old lady looks Grandma quite a bit) funeral with details of the egg, stone, and inked palm print. Inside of the room, a Daoist master is playing Chinese flute (the only music in this film besides a later on Jiu Jiu Yan Yang Tian in a wedding march). While the master is doing Taoist practices, Honggui is squatting outside washing dishes.
Scene 26: Aunt is playing Majhong, saying: “Honggui, go to bed now. Don’t stay sitting here.” Meanwhile, Uncle sits on Honggui’s bed, looking angry. Honggui goes out, wants to go inside a car, in vain. She uses a flashlight and goes downhill with the fading singing of the master.
Scene 27: Downhill in her room, she tear up the toilet paper and the Sutra. She stands beside a basin, keeps patting her belly. There is a small piece of litter by the basin, reading “blood”.
Scene 28: Honggui’s boyfriend is in a hotel room while an adult man is calling somebody on the phone. This means the boy will be taken to somewhere distant to work. the man says: “What kind of factory you want to work in? I’ll try my best to get you a position. I’m going to take a shower now. You think about it. Right, lend me your motor, huh?”
Scene 29: Drizzling. The boy walks towards the waiting Honggui in the middle of a stone bridge. “I leave the money for the eggs here (inside of a small stone cave next to Honggui).” Honggui nods. A close-up after five seconds. She found a stone seal from the boy, made for her).
Scene 30: The boy goes to his current boss that he wants to quit. The boss threats to punish him for 500 less as he has not finish working for the whole month. The boy resists with his silence. The boss shouts: ” You want it or not? If not, get outta here!” The boy goes off the farm field to his motor. (A sign that he refuses to take the shrinked wage?)
Scene 31: On the playground in school. Students are running while Honggui goes faint. The teacher dismisses the rest and they cheers with joy. The teacher takes Honggui to medical care. The campus is filled with voices of a choir of young students reading aloud new words in a Chinese class.
Scene 32: Honggui lies in bed. The next shot shows the flowing spring outside the room and its tickling sound. Aunt and Uncle sit at the table with two glasses and a pile of sun flower seeds. Uncle says: “DNA test is available these days.” Aunt: “It is too difficult for me to find another new born, with this national one child policy.” Uncle: “But if the kid knows who the parents are, it might be too hard to bring him up (without losing him to his real parents)”. Aunt: “This is too good an opportunity to lose. I want to keep this child.” Uncle: “You can’t do this just because you are barren!” Aunt: “You are merely timid. Afraid not!”
Scene 33: Wedding music from the distance gradually brings a marching parade of a pair of newly-weds. As they disappear into the other side of the village, the boy gets on his all packed motorcycle. There is no farewell. No conversation. Only sounds and a passing happy wedding scene.
Scene 34: Uncle puts (abortion) medication into a glass of water and says to Aunt: “Ask her to drink this.” “What if she refuses?” “If so, tell her we will inform her parents of what she has done!” Aunt takes the glass with her and goes to Honggui’s room. Uncle begins to trim his fingernails.
Scene 35: That night, Honggui lies in bed, too painful to breathe, fighting back her tears. She gets off bed, locates the basin and let out a string of blood. She weeps with pain. Her trembling back on the bed is visible while in the distance, fireworks from the wedding are blossoming.
Scene 36: The following day, Aunt exclaims: “Honggui!” Busy footsteps.
Scene 37: On the operation table, Honggui opens her legs to take an abortion. She screams: “Pain…”
Scene 38: Fireworks are cheering once again. Honggui lies in the bed in a hospital. Only her faintly pink face is visible. She looks outside the window: green leaves are swinging in the breeze.
Scene 39: Aunt comes to take her out of the hospital. In the office, the doctor says: “If you insists, I will have to let you go.” Aunt: “I know it is a trouble to you, but please keep this secret for Honggui: she is still a child.” “You have my word. That’s our basic work ethics.”
Scene 40: Uncle enters Honggui’s hospital room: “You feel any better? You get all cleaned up?” He goes to touch her hair. Honggui punches him with the stone seal in her hand without saying a word. Uncle: “Ouch.” Honggui’s tears fall down.
Scene 41: A mini paranoma of the village: Honggui is running in the distance while Uncle stays in his car, takes off his glasses and lowers his head.
Scene 42: Uncle opens the window, rips off all the thick brown package paper, and dismantles Honggui’s bed.
Scene 43: Two elderly sit outside a house. The female: “Don’t forget the eggs!” The male: “Thank you.” He then takes his coffin portraits and walks away. He walks in the open farm field and woods. Honggui’s figure pops up. She puts down the fire woods and streches a little bit. She opens her bedroom door. Over her simple bed there is a string of cleaned clothes. Wind blows in.
Scene 44: In the primitive kitchen, Grandma is cooking. She arranges a sacrifice with several daily fruits and kills a cock and let its blood drip into a bowl. The cock is struggling in the hall (of her house). In the bathroom, a chick is twittering. Everything goes back to ‘normality’. Honggui is bathing in a basin. The picture goes almost dark: the only audible thing is her bathing sound. After a while, she looks up. continues washing, and then stops. There is a spot of blood on her finger. She lifts that hand, staring at the finger. A silhouette of her face. She keeps staring at her finger.
List of the whole crew (sound of dripping liquid).