Film Reviews

Review: ‘Still Tomorrow’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Still Tomorrow
(China, 88 min.)
Dir. Jian Fan
Programme: Artscapes (Canadian Premiere)

In half of China, things are happening: volcanoes
erupt, rivers run dry,
political prisoners and displaced workers are abandoned,
elk deer and red-crowned cranes get shot.
I cross the hail of bullets to sleep with you.
-Yu Xiuhua, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”

Still Tomorrow chronicles the success of Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, who shot to fame when her poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You” went viral. The bold voice of the verse intimately connects female sexuality with questions of nationhood and the documentary illustrates how the words of the poet tapped into a cultural consciousness ready to be awakened. The physical voice of the poet isn’t as piercing as her written one, as Still Tomorrow recounts Yu’s experience with cerebral palsy, particularly with the way in which it affects her speech. Finding a voice through poetry finally lets Yu be heard and the reward is an invigorating boost of confidence.

The film goes inside Yu’s rural home where she lives in relative isolation with her parents and troubled husband. Yu’s marriage looks to be a root of many of the problems in her life, far more than her physical disability, since her husband, a migrant worker who appears on and off in the film, treats her terribly and shows little compassion for her affliction. The film doesn’t need to say that “Crossing Half of China Just to Sleep With You” is not a romantic ode to him, but rather a longing for the romance that Yu can only imagine. The writing empowers Yu, though, particularly in one surprising scene in which her husband returns home after crossing half of China just to sleep with her in the kind of loveless exchange that’s become a ritual in their marriage. Yu tells her husband that his empty desire for her body leaves her feeling like a prostitute so she refuses to let her him touch her unless she receives a payment so that both parties are satisfied with the transaction. No sale.

Yu’s words inspire women across China and the film documents her rise to fame by touring with her on a publicity junket. She’s a talking point on TV and a guest performer on competition programmes—a surprising celebrity for a poet. The spotlight lets Yu speak openly about her experiences living with cerebral palsy and the feelings of shame and isolation she endures when a culture has such conservative standards for normalcy and acceptance.

This character piece by Jian Fan (Wu Tu: My Land) is an appropriately poetic rendering of Yu’s life and struggle. The film watches Yu as she gains her voice through her poetry and Jian Fan offers methodical observational shots of the land and countryside that inspire Yu while voiceover and title cards immerse the viewers in her poetry. The peaceful serenity of the countryside and idyll moments of artistic creation are far more pleasing than the grating presence of her husband. One understands why Yu seeks an escape. Still Tomorrow is a touching character portrait that dives right into the heart of a poet and illustrates how the arts empower and sustain us.

Still Tomorrow screens:
-Sunday, May 7 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 1:45 PM

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