IFFR 2013 Review: LONGING FOR THE RAIN Gives An Unflinching Look At Sexual Desire
(Apparently, rainy nights make for wet dreaming...)
Despite the reputation of the International Film Festival Rotterdam for being one of the main portals to Asian cinema, this year there weren't many films from China. What was there was pretty special, though, like Johnnie To's Drug War or Yang Lina's Tiger Award-nominated Longing For The Rain, both films being shot by Hong Kong directors in Mainland China.
But where Drug War is called a Mainland film and will be received with open arms over there, I would be very surprised if Yang Lina's film about female sexual urges will get a showing anywhere in Mainland China within the next decade. And with THAT subject matter, you can guess why.
Because Longing For The Rain is erotically explicit to a surprising extent. Taking the supernatural story elements into account, on paper you might even wonder if this is a serious drama or a raunchy piece of genre exploitation.
Rest assured though: it is the former. Read on...
Fang Lei lives with her husband and daughter in Beijing. They are a rich, happy family, a poster image of contemporary upper class China, and everything seems fine.
But then Fang Lei starts being assaulted by something invisible, a presence which visits her more clearly in her dreams. At first she is scared of the encounters, but also intrigued when they become erotic rather than violent. As the attacks get increasingly passionate and sexual, Fang Lei discovers her ghost lover actually gives her more relief and pleasure than her husband. Soon, she becomes addicted to the visits and starts looking forward to them...
So there I was, part of a large audience watching a film which very obviously takes place in Mainland China. Then the first sex scene arrived, which showed the lead character starting to masturbate in no uncertain terms. A few minutes later, we saw her get intimate with her ghost lover and, again, no imagination was needed whatsoever. Looking left and right, I saw bemused, surprised people in the cinema. I honestly think nobody expected Longing For The Rain to be quite THIS explicit. Nipples are fondled and rise to the occasion in extreme close-up. Merged lovers cavort underwater as if they are a single creature. A woman is banged hard from behind, so hard, in fact, that she almost gets pushed right through a sheet of glass, which is the only thing preventing her from hitting the camera.
When the lights went back on a Question and Answer session began, and my hand shot up to ask something. Remembering what happened to Tang Wei after appearing so naked in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, I asked director Yang Lina and lead actress Zhao Siyuan if they didn't fear repercussions for their daring work. People around me nodded in agreement: there's no chance you can get away with being this graphic on the Mainland.
And Yang Lina answered: "No, because this is a Hong Kong film."
D'oh! Facepalm. That'll teach me to do my homework...
In my defense, Longing For The Rain doesn't give the impression that it is from Hong Kong. It leans heavily on its Mainland locations, especially Beijing, and it shows most of its citizens as being successful and happy in modern-day China.
The big difference is, of course, that Longing For The Rain actually depicts a woman coming to terms with having a sexual appetite. Before I give the impression that this is a softcore porn film, or an arthouse flick spiced up with some sex scenes, it is not. The focus is on Fang Lei, who tries to make sense of her feelings and what is happening to her.
The aforementioned graphic sex is there, but not shown with the languorous pace used in porn to make sure everybody can compare pieces of plumbing. Instead, snippets are shown. Brief touches, facial expressions. Rapid editing conveys Fang Lei's pleasure or the way she senses what happens. These moments are reminiscent of how sensory input was shown in Amer, and I mean that as a compliment.
Short as they are, these scenes are powerfully erotic, not in the least because Zhao Siyuan, who plays Fang Lei, is quite a striking woman to see, regal when dressed, physically fit and beautiful when naked. Thankfully she is also a very good actress, making Fang Lei believable enough to keep the audience firmly on her side throughout the character's ordeals, supernatural or otherwise.
In fact, if the film has a weakness, it is in the story. Longing For The Rain has a great buildup in its first half as Fang Lei begins to be haunted, especially when she and her friends start visiting priests of different religions to seek help. But in the second half, a serious event happens which takes a lot of the attention away from the haunting itself, and it hurts the film. It doesn't help that this "event" is full of vague plot holes, from which the narrative unfortunately never completely recovers.
Despite that, Longing For The Rain is still very much worth seeing. The central performances, direction, cinematography and editing are all very solid, while the subject is unusual and original. Director Yang Lina has made several documentaries in the past, but this is her first narrative feature and it is a brave one. I definitely hope she will make more.
With its daring content and unconventional story, Longing For The Rain is an interesting film. It's a shame the narrative derails somewhat during the second half, taking a lot of the focus away from its central subject of addictive lust.
The end result is still pretty good, though. The strong acting, the explicit-yet-stylish eroticism, and the serious take on female sexuality keep this film far away from the exploitation genre. It is definitely one of the most original films I saw this year at the festival.
The audiences in Rotterdam liked it, and awarded the film with a very respectable 3.7 out of 5.