Fireworks make an unlikely appearance near the end of Huang Ji’s debut feature, Egg and Stone (2012). The spectacle is unlikely because Huang is now at the forefront of quiet cinema and because her film probes the fatal quietism surrounding sexual abuse. The fireworks are also surprising in that they emerge alongside the hospital scene of 14-year-old Honggui (Yao Honggui)’s abortion. Coupled with Honggui’s breaths and moans, they constitute the climactic polyphony within the film’s soundscape.
Egg and Stone marks the beginning of Huang’s three-part cinematic examination of left-behind children and womanhood in contemporary China. Over nine million left-behind children live in China as of 2018, defined as children who reside in rural regions of the country while one or both parents migrate to urban areas for work. By 1984, the year Huang was born, women made up half the workforce of rural China. Peasant family income per capita was 62% higher than it had been at the beginning of the decade due to reforms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Huang’s work is a necessary reminder of the cost of economic development. When Huang screened Egg and Stone at the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival, the film—uncompromising in its interrogation of sexual abuse within Hunan and featuring non-professional actors from the region—was shut off mid-feature.
To watch Egg and Stone is to endure the fraught relationship between economic prosperity, nationhood, and the psychological burden on women told through a series of sharp images. In Egg and Stone’s opening scene, Honggui beats her fists against her chest in rage—and possibly in an attempt to manipulate her menstrual cycle. The purgative gesture forecasts a scene in Huang’s The Foolish Bird (2017), in which Lynn (also played by Honggui) washes her mouth out with soap after she is forced to perform oral sex in exchange for the prospect of a job at the police academy. Egg and Stone commences Huang’s collaboration with cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka, with whom she would continue to work through her latest release, Stonewalling (2021), which the couple co-directed.
“Gosh, it’s shit,” Honggui’s friend tells her, looking at the crappy backdrop in front of which Honggui will soon have to pose for a photograph with her uncle. The studio is a former dancehall in which a disco ball still hangs. The faux window in front of which they pose is characterized by what an art teacher might call “box green”: that eyesore of an attempt at a meadow’s hue. The artificial quality of their pose, along with the backdrop, is indeed shitty or campy, especially in comparison Huang’s shots of the countryside to which Honggui retreats throughout the film. The stability of their pose is soon countered by the two teenagers’ decision to hang a portrait of an elder relative upside down, a small attempt at rupture. Huang’s cinema offers a similarly radical, unrelenting gesture.
Egg and Stone screens tonight, March 11, at Film at Lincoln Center to accompany the release of Stonewalling. Director Huang Ji and cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka will be in attendance to introduce the film.