At the outset of “Stonewalling,” it is clear that Lynn (Honggui Yao) is the odd one out, slumped into a couch, checking her phone after struggling to make conversation at a dinner party. Her boyfriend has learned English and will remind her of the 5000¥ he’s paid for her to do the same, but she hasn’t picked it up quite yet, yielding the talk about moving to Australia and the UK swirling around her only vaguely comprehensible. The world has opened up for her generation in China, free to travel and start families and build lives that were previously thought to be impossible, but when Lynn doesn’t exactly know what she wants to do in the first place, the additional opportunities would only seem to add to the burden of not knowing what comes next.
While the story of an aimless millennial has been told countless times in the West, it comes across differently in “Stonewalling,” given an epic scope when co-directors Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka see Lynn as a guide through contemporary China and utilize a two-and-a-half-hour runtime to follow her through various sectors as she attempts to make a living, offering a snapshot of the entire country. With both directors’ background in docs, it doesn’t seem all that unusual to simply have Lynn lingering in the background of scenes as an observer, sitting quietly as her boyfriend films TikTok promos for his gigs as an MC or listening in as a well-to-do woman interviews three women as potential egg donors for her brother and his wife. As it turns out, Lynn is disqualified from the gig when she learns she’s actually pregnant herself, but in need of cash and uninterested in being a mother at this time, another opportunity presents itself when she sees a chance to erase the restitution her mother pays the family of a child birth gone wrong in her clinic by offering the mother her baby once it’s brought to term.
The notion of the baby as a commodity seems like a natural end point to Huang and Ryuji’s vision of a culture where Lynn is implored to “sell herself” more to achieve success, an embrace of individuality at considerable odds with the spirit of collectivism that had been cultivated for generations before hers. But that is actually where “Stonewalling” opens up as Lynn’s ambivalence becomes reflective of a country caught in the crosswinds of social upheaval. As others around her become entrepreneurs, most notably her mother who has found prosperity in hawking Vital Cream, a dubious-sounding cure-all (made with “quantum technology”) to the neglect of the community clinic she started with her husband, Lynn’s paralysis is half-uncertainty and half-skepticism when putting herself out there is both against her nature, but also feeding into a sense of exploitation, crisply crystallized when she is hired well into her pregnancy to sell baby formula at a convention where she is a superficially ideal spokesperson, but her pitch to customers is less than convincing.
Unfolding in striking still frames that can remind of Edward Hopper paintings in their feeling of quiet desperation, “Stonewalling” manages to express all that Lynn is up against that she may not even be aware of while not leaving her side. The narrative may seem as if it occasionally strays from Huang and Ryuji’s grasp as they linger on the entirety of Vital Cream demonstrations and job training that Lynn undergoes, but the accumulation of quotidian scenes become a tidal wave that threatens to leave its lead character behind, the work of filmmakers who know exactly where the world is going even when following someone lost at sea.
“Stonewalling” will screening once more as part of the Giornate Degli Autori section of the Venice Film Festival on September 9th at 8:45 pm at the Sala Corinto. It will next screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12th at 7:45 pm and September 14th at 2:45 pm at the Scotiabank.