Issue 63 (2019)

Yang Ge: Nu (Niu, 2018)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2019

nyuNu is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. And/or it is a Sino-Russo version of Emmanuelle, the French film series originating in the mid-1970s ostensibly about the inner life and desire of a woman explored through a whole lot of external displays of that woman’s body. Many scenes involving flagrant undress offer much to appreciate and contemplate about the human form, transient relationships, and the nature of titillation.

nyu Speaking of which, no one can accuse Nu of false advertising. One of the posters for the film, designed by Natal’ia Shendrik, features four nipples arranged serially, two by two. These nipples appear transplanted onto a fairly smooth plane of flesh lacking the curves and volume one might expect from breasts and instead resemble farmyard teats. The female form has been made strange through multiplication and a change in geography, and perhaps the film overall follows the same strategy in terms of its erotics. 

nyuThe singular dynamo behind Nu is Yang Ge. Not only is she the writer, director, and star of the film, but she also serves as the film’s production designer and is the singer-songwriter for the film’s multiple musical interludes. Audiences may recognize her as the fourth-place finalist coached by Dima Bilan on Season 6 (2017) of Golos, the Russian version of the singing contest The Voice. Born and raised in Beijing, Ge relocated to Moscow and studied acting at the Film Institute VGIK with writer-director Sergei Solov’ev. She has since performed on the stage of the Gogol Center and has had small acting parts in such notable films as Attraction (Pritiazhenie, dir. Fedor Bondarchuk, 2017), Matilda (dir. Aleksei Uchitel’, 2017), and Flight Crew (Ekipazh, dir. Nikolai Lebedev, 2016), but Nu is her feature-film debut—and an auspicious debut at that. In April 2018, the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 40th Moscow International Film Festival (which was held early so as not to conflict with the World Cup games over the summer).

nyuGe perhaps plays herself in the film. Her character is a woman of many artistic proclivities who, basically, is looking for a hookup. She recruits her model friend Misha to go on a date with her on the premise that they will be sleeping with each other. We see them hang out along Tverskaya Street with trips to the Moskva bookstore and the Eliseev grocery store (buying neither books nor groceries) as we hear her singing, “S kem spat’?” (“With whom do I sleep?”). A Hollywood Reporter account of the film at the Moscow International Film Festival purports that this line from the film “became something of a catchphrase with younger, irreverent festivalgoers” (Kozlov and Holdsworth 2018). But all this romantic buildup—the lingering close-ups of comely, wry knowing stares, looks askance, and smiles—ends merely with a friendly hug down on the metro platform as they part. Despite the handholding and her stated confidence that he loves her, she explains that she changed her mind at the last minute, because she wanted to remain friends with him. But ever determined—it is a noble cause, after all—she looks forward to being set up by a friend that Friday. After a brief interlude of painting, she goes on that date. Much flirtation and wine, however, prove all for naught. She then seems to get lucky with a lady photographer, but reveals that she did not go all the way because she was on her period and she now knows she is not a lesbian. During this scene of girl-on-girl action, we hear her singing: “I’m talking / You don’t understand / I’m saying ‘Nu’ / You don’t understand.” Well, she is absolutely right.

nyu Publicity for the film asks the audience to question the title: what does Nu—as in the Chinese character—mean? Anyone with an elementary understanding of Mandarin or anyone familiar with the paper placemats of the zodiac found in Chinese restaurants will already have some idea, though that knowledge will likely lead to greater befuddlement than understanding while watching the film. Only in one of the final scenes does the title seem to become relevant in a surreal turn that some may find baffling, even preposterous. After the closing credits, Ge reappears onscreen to explain the title. She confirms to us that nu does, in fact, mean what you have suspected all along, only to chuckle at what she seems to understand is a bewildering revelation—and the film abruptly ends. In an interview with Mikhail Ruzmanov for the Russian edition of The Hollywood Reporter, Ge suggests that the title is referencing something that is itself supposedly a symbol of love.

nyuThe Chinese title of the film, pronounced ‘niu,’ is a homonym of the Russian colloquialism ‘ню’ (‘niu’), a variant of the interjection ‘ну‘ (‘nu’) meaning ‘well,’ only more jokingly, childishly, or snarkily. As the film progresses, the word seems to take on a questioning tone, perhaps exasperation. By the end of the film, she looks at us and declares, “It’s good that you didn’t die, and good that I didn’t go crazy.” I am not sure whether that is a high bar. Earlier in the film, we hear her thinking to herself that “Some people exist simply to prove the point that people are easily fooled.” That particular scene plays out so that we see how she sets herself up to be considered such a person. Well, as the film plays on and we get more variation of the same, I am not sure whether the audience might fall into this category as well.

NyuIn her interview with Ruzmanov, Ge claims that she made the film for almost nothing. Her cinematographer Marii Androsova is a friend from VGIK, and most of the actors in the film are her friends as well. Ge explains that the film’s small budget was spent on color correction, sound mixing, and other post-production processes. Issues with the film do not seem to arise from the poverty of its production (for example, the scene in which she burns a painting but we never actually see the painting being burned; or the scene in which a dairy cow speaks to her in a male voice despite the fact that it seems to be female). The film overall looks great, with much to please in the cinematography—color and pop—beyond the abundance of nudity. However, the editing at times can seem a bit too predictably, stereotypically music-video with flourishes of cuts that flash without any seeming coherence.

nyuYet it is difficult to dismiss this film. There is something to be said of an award-winning Russian film centered on a female Chinese immigrant, but one might wish that such a protagonist would not so readily embrace Western culture’s tired trope of the Asian woman as an exotic sex object. Throughout the film, Ge repeatedly speaks directly to the camera and therefore to us. If the gaze is returned, and the audience is spoken to directly, are we really voyeurs? Toward the end of the film, Ge’s character tearfully complains of the difficulty of communicating across cultures, in a different language. But much in the film (e.g., the nudity) seems fairly universal. The film seems very much of the moment with its “me” focus: is it self-promotion and self-absorption or honest self-reflection? Well, or Ню

 

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

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Works Cited

Kozlov, Vladimir, and Nick Holdsworth. 2018. “‘The Lord Eagle’ Takes Top Prize at Moscow Film Festival.” The Hollywood Reporter, 26 April.

Ruzmanov, Mikhail. 2018. “Sverkhnovaia: Ian Ge.” Interview with Yang Ge. The Hollywood Reporter (Russian Edition), 31 May.


Nu, Russian Federation, 2018
Color, 65 min.
Director, Scriptwriter, Producer, Production Designer: Yang Ge
Director of Photography: Maria Androsova
Editors: Ekaterina Pianyh, Iuulia Kluk
Music: Dmitrii Zhuk
Sound: Rustam Medov
Cast: Yang Ge, Evgenii Romantsov, Demid Usachev, Fabio Bressan, Dar’ia Iastrebova, Georgii Kudrenko, Aleksandr Krivoshapkin, Nikita El’nev.
Producer: Yang Ge
Premiere: MIFF 22 April 2018

Yang Ge: Nu (Niu, 2018)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2019

Updated: 2019