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Thursday, March 29, 2007

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N.Y. TIMES REVIEW

FILM REVIEW; Rejected by Society, a Woman Struggles to Carry On

By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: January 17, 2007, Wednesday

On its way to bridging past and present, the Chinese film ''Dam Street'' opens in the early 1980s with an unwanted pregnancy. Sixteen, beautiful and involved with another student, Yun (Liu Yi) manages to keep her swelling belly hidden until nearly the end of her term, when she and her secret are discovered in a school bathroom. The school expels the lovers and trumpets their ''moral decadence'' on loudspeakers that blast the news throughout their small village. The boy leaves to become a carpenter's apprentice; Yun stays and delivers a baby that her mother, a teacher at the school, says has died.

Ten years later, and Yun is still living in that same crummy village. She is also earning her keep singing in a small variety troupe and being heckled by a crowd that wants to hear pop instead of opera. (''Bring on the dancing girls!'' someone shouts.) In time, she befriends one of her mother's students, a 10-year-old boy named Xiao Yong (Huang Xingrao), who keeps a pet rabbit and a duck, and eagerly returns her attentions in kind. Achingly lonely, Yun takes to the boy with a tenderness that wavers perilously from the maternal to the carnal, and makes the film's melodramatic denouement all the more transparent.

''Dam Street'' drifts along with many nicely observed scenes of everyday life -- women chattering around a table, fish flopping next to an overturned truck -- and some awkwardly delivered exposition. Like any number of Chinese films that make the festival rounds, it offers a portrait of alienation in a post-Mao world as believable as it is grim, grim, grim.

''Modern people have it good,'' Yun sings at one point, a sentiment that the film's director, Li Yu, contradicts almost every chance she gets. The sexual politics are particularly provocative: the men in ''Dam Street'' are either louts or missing in action, which suggests that what this director has isn't a case of the old anomie but something of a father (Mao) complex.

Dam Street (Hong Yan)
Opens today in Manhattan.

Directed by Li Yu; written (in Mandarin and Sichuan, with English subtitles) by Li Yu and Fang Li; director of photography, Wang Wei; edited by Karl Riedl; music by Liu Sijun; produced by Fang Li; released by the Global Film Initiative. At the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, Museum of Modern Art, Global Lens 2007 series. Running time: 93 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Liu Yi (Yun), Liu Rui (Wang Feng), Huang Xingrao (Xiao Yong), Li Kechun (Teacher Su) and Wang Yizhu (Wang Zhengyue).