Capitalism, Stranger Than a Space Alien

‘UFO in Her Eyes,’ a Chinese Satire, at MoMA

by Stephen Holden, the New York Times, 13 June 2012

Three-Headed Bird Village — the setting for Xiaolu Guo’s stingingly funny satire, “UFO in Her Eyes” — is a quiet agricultural hamlet in the Guangxi province of southern China that is uprooted by instant globalization. The catalyst is a sighting by Kwok Yun (Shi Ke), an unmarried peasant in her 30s, of what she believes is a U.F.O.

Her revelation follows her dalliance in a field with the unhappily married local headmaster (Z. Lan). A subtheme of the movie is the village’s rigid moral code of behavior and its negative presumptions about unmarried women of a certain age.

Finding a hunk of quartz on the grass, Kwok Yun gazes through it and is stunned by a blinding white light. Moments later she meets a Caucasian man (Udo Kier) suffering from a snake bite. She delivers first aid; then he mysteriously disappears.

When Kwok Yun returns home, she reports having seen an extraterrestrial object that resembled a dumpling. For helping the stranger, she is roundly scolded, because the village is hostile to outsiders.

But the foreigner later sends a thank you note to the town, accompanied by a $3,000 check. Chief Chang (Mandy Zhang), the avaricious Communist mayor who quotes Mao Zedong, goes haywire with dreams of parlaying the windfall into untold riches. Kwok Yun is given an award for being “a model peasant” and is relieved of working in the mine where she has been toiling. As word spreads of the U.F.O., the world descends on the xenophobic village.

Because “UFO in Her Eyes,” adapted from a novel by Ms. Guo, is a surreal fantasy, there is little explanation for how Three-Headed Bird Village is transformed almost overnight into a tacky tourist attraction with a U.F.O. theme park, hotel and golf course. The story is told in interwoven color and black-and-white segments.

The noncolor parts are the observations of a cynical, condescending Chinese bureaucrat dispatched from Beijing to interview the residents. He is heard asking questions, but his face is never shown.

In one of the funniest scenes a Chinese capitalist guru lectures the starstruck villagers on the rules for getting rich, which include “believe in yourself,” “only invest other people’s money,” and “the packaging is more important than the product.” Without knowing exactly what they’re consuming, the children go around reading the dirty parts of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” (The village is at that latitude.)

“UFO in Her Eyes” is a political fable in which Mao Zedong’s ideals of enforced collectivization, when applied to Chinese capitalism, wreak havoc once the initial euphoria subsides. The new golf course claims valuable farmland. The local butcher is told he cannot operate without refrigeration. Kwok Yun’s shack is torn down. And during a grotesque, drunken celebration, when the foreigner returns to participate in a flag-waving orgy of self-congratulation, the dispossessed peasants rise up.

Because Mr. Kier, whose character is supposed to be American, is a well-known German actor, his accent is discordant, but no matter. The movie scores its satirical point about the irresistibility — at least for these naïve peasants — of the silliest aspects of capitalist development. What happens in Three-Headed Bird Village is akin to European explorers dazzling native peoples with cheap trinkets.

UFO in Her Eyes

Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Directed by Sabotage Sister, a k a Xiaolu Guo; written by Ms. Guo and Pamela Casey, based on Ms. Guo’s novel; director of photography, Michal Tywoniuk; edited by Nikolai Hartmann; music by Mocky; art direction by Jun Yao; produced by Klaus Maeck; released by Corazón International and Match Factory. At the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, Museum of Modern Art. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Shi Ke (Kwok Yun), Udo Kier (Steve Frost), Mandy Zhang (Chief Chang), Y. Peng Liu (Bicycle Repairman), Z. Lan (Headmaster Lee), Massela Wei (Secretary Zhao) and Dou Li (Old Kwok).



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