Review by Jonathan Berk
Directors Ryuji Otsuka and Huang Ji's new film Stonewalling centers around Lynn (Yao Honggui - who worked with the directors previously in Foolish Bird and Egg and Stone), a 20-year-old uncertain about her future. Lynn is essentially stuck and is being told she needs English classes, flight attendant school, and an optimistic attitude. Realizing she’s pregnant sets in motion a different path, which involves lying to her boyfriend that she’s had an abortion, and instead returning to her feuding parents and their failing clinic to try and figure out what her next move should be.
The movie is set in China just before the COVID-19 pandemic hits in 2020, which this film grapples with in an interesting way. While Lynn’s twenty-something apathy is emblematic of many cultures, there are specific elements of the story tied to China that may not make sense to an international audience. For example, Lynn’s mother (played by one of the director’s actual mother) is part of Vitality Cream, which seems like a pyramid scheme of sorts. It is an important element of the film that American audiences may not be familiar with. There are a few other things like this that may require some research to get the full importance on the story and the film's themes. This isn’t inherently a detriment, but coupled with the pacing and static camera, it could be a reason for a viewer to disconnect with the story.
The name of the film is important to both the story and deliberate nature of the cinematography. Stonewalling means “delay or block” and that’s obviously what Lynn uses her pregnancy to do. She wants to put the brakes on growing up, as she clearly isn’t sure what she wants. Like Lynn, the camera rarely moves. Otsuka and Ji set the camera and allow the scenes to play out often in wide shots. The editing is paced similarly, with minimal cuts for the most part, as the filmmaking ponders the point of it all. There are a few scenes where a kind of clandestine meeting takes place in a parked car. The camera is in the backseat and never cuts to another angle as the conversation unfolds. On its surface, the conversation feels mundane, but the subject matter involves the future of Lynn’s unborn child. The audience is forced to sit in the back and listen to the future of someone planned for them, without being able to offer any input. This feels reflective of Lynn feeling like she is a passive observer of her own life.
Stonewalling’s tone is somber and contemplative, and every aspect of its filmmaking reflects that. Unfortunately, getting distracted and feeling as disconnected as the film’s main character is also easy. There is no denying the intentionality of the film, but there was also no denying the boredom that I felt while watching. It’s possible that at the age of 40, I couldn’t relate to the plight of a 20-year-old enough. Still, the feelings and themes the filmmakers focus on are worthy of contemplation. Audiences willing to take some time to reflect on the content will find there is much to dwell on long after the credits roll.
Stonewalling opens in theaters on March 10.