THE CROSSING – Disoriented feelings of growing up between two borders

Special Administrative region Hong Kong is separated from mainland China by a border that many locals cross on a daily basis. On June 30, 1997 the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty after more than 150 years of colonial rule. Since then Hong Kong has formally joined the People’s Republic of China governing the arrangement One Country, Two Systems, through 2047 the relationship between them.

This long-term prospect has becoming more and more uncertain due to Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed claim of control in the territory, particularly from the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. But up till now Hong Kong has kept its administrative autonomy, capitalist economic system and Cantonese as the official language. That is its life-style, political freedoms and a market economy.

Low taxes, higher average income and more opportunities for education is what attracts people from the other side of the border. As a result of very different economic conditions and strict import and export policies in mainland China, the border became the point for a specific criminal activity. Since early 90s local authorities deal with smuggling, and despite constant restrictions, smugglers are very active till the present day, involving new methods and various techniques to illegally import costly goods to the Mainland.

This becomes the context, in which Chinese director and scriptwriter Bai Xue wraps her debut feature, THE CROSSING, a story of a teenager who gets involved into smuggling. The film premiered last year at TIFF and received a NETPAC Honourable Mention Award, and was also awarded at The Hong Kong and Pingyao Film festivals, being warmly accepted by both domestic and foreign audiences without regard to specific social background. However this background is always present in the film – both from Bai Xue’s own experience of growing up at Shenzhen, and her careful work with the story that is set in particular time and place, involving extensive research and many hours of interviewing locals.

Liu Zipei (or just Peipei) has just turned 16. She has a Hong Kong ID but lives in Shenzhen, crossing the border every day in order to get to school and back home. Together with her friend Jo she plans to collect money for a holiday trip to Japan. The first business they take up is reselling Taobao phone cases to their classmates. At her age Peipei is now allowed to get a job,and she immediately starts as a part-time waitress. When the girl accidentally becomes a witness and a participant of a smuggling scene, she quickly realizes her schoolgirl image is a beneficial cover-up and starts to carry smartphones across the border together with Jo’s boyfriend.

Bai Xue creates a coming of age drama, where her main character constantly has to cross the borders she faces. There’s a physical border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen where she walks in order to get to school; there’s an invisible border between childhood and adulthood, that Peipei crosses back and forth. She splits her time between Shenzhen, where she lives with her somewhat detached mother and Hong Kong, where she hangs out with her friend. Together with Jo she skips classes, hides at the school roof and dream of spending their holiday bathing in a hot spring drinking sake and watching snow fall. In Hong Kong snow becomes a beautiful but unrealistic dream, which is opposed to home life, where Peipei faces much more earthly situation: parents’ divorce, absentee father, gambling mother without a steady job, and no opportunities for further education (as opposed to her privileged friend Jo, who is going to a university abroad). The camerawork by Songri Piao captures the contrast that Peipei deals with. Fast and jumpy shots accompany the moments of hope and inspiration, opposed to slow and static camera that follows Peipei as she comes back to Shenzhen, visits her Dad or works at a cafe. As Peipei’s reality gets more complicated, these rhythms start to unevenly blend with each other increasing instability and uncertainty that crossing the border of childhood means.

The difference and the distance also come out though the language: Peipei is surrounded by Cantonese in Hong Kong, and speaks Mandarin at home: she is fluent in both, but not all people around are. Her mother’s friend complains that she can’t help her child with the homework assigned by a Hong Kong school, as she doesn’t know the language. Hong Kong is seen as a way to get a better life, however it stays at a distance and keeps the barrier – the worlds, where Peipei exists do not meet each other. She never fully fits into any of them, avoiding talking with her mother and staying aside at a party she attends with Jo. What the both worlds have in common is regular mentions of money: to get a holiday, Peipei has to buy the ticket; her father speaks of mortgage and her mother gambles. Becoming a courier turns into a logical decision, the familiar premise between two borders finds a purpose and she feels needed. Dinners at the warehouse become a substitute for family gatherings.

The film gets the viewers over the many levels of teen experience, allowing to connect with the character and to feel for her throughout the film – notable acting by Hang Yao (Peipei) should definitely be mentioned. Dealing with issues that become more real and more serious, Peipei finds her voice, but also loses her innocent view. The anxiety rockets up, the stakes rise and the events get out of control. What becomes important is whether they ever really were under any personal control at all. While Jo cries over not going to Ireland, Peipei stays detached when one of the smugglers takes the delivery package off from her body, and hardly says a word to her mother, who is inspired by the view of Hong Kong. The film’s story tries not to go beyond a personal drama, leaving some place for new dreams, but its actual context creates a contrast with the title about smuggling enforcements – whether or not the government’s’ activities decrease the amount of goods taken through the border, it seems, that not much is there as an alternative yet, apart from a beautiful view from the mountains.

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