For the first time in more than a decade, I watched again Xei Fei’s Women from the Lake of Scented Souls—well, really, Woman Sesame Oil Maker is the correct English translation of the Mandarin: Xian hun nu. It is, if anything, even more impressive and incisive now.
The film’s greatest asset is the complex lead performance by Siqin Gaowa.
We are such convoluted creatures, aren’t we! Although she was sold into a bad marriage and a harsh life at age thirteen, twenty-plus years ago, Xiang (the character that Siqin plays) now buys a young girl herself for her 22-year-old son, who is both epileptic and mentally handicapped. While her own husband beats Xiang when she doesn’t want to have sex, her son beats his young wife out of frustration because he hasn’t a clue how to have sex.
The film has both a practical dimension and a spiritual and poetic one. Practical: We see the entire exhausting process by which sesame oil is produced, and we also witness the capitalistic exploitation of this labor that ensues when a Japanese firm wishes to invest in Xiang’s rural mom-and-pop enterprise in return for distributing the product, mass-produced, in Japan. Spiritual/poetic: the lyrical and haunting lake, in tinted shots—blues or sepia—on a par of beauty with Monet’s Giverny water garden/water & trees paintings.
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