A young woman named Ciao Ciao returns from Guangzhou to her rural home in southern China. She has enjoyed a more sophisticated lifestyle, and now chafes against her parents and her former neighbors. With nothing to do, and craving the experience of being feted and romanced, she makes a choice between two romantic suitors – and finds the wrong choice may be disastrous.
Ciao Ciao joins an ongoing parade of Chinese social realist films, each focused closely on the issue of rural-to-urban migration. Families in the country are comparatively poor, and the temptation of higher salaries and a better standard of living entice individuals to risk city living so as to send money back home and support one’s family. It is a phenomenon that separates families, and sometimes even breaks them, and has proven rich fodder over the years for Chinese filmmakers. Ciao Ciao takes a rarer approach, telling the story not of one who goes to the city, nor one who is left behind, but rather of one who has failed and returned.
Ciao Ciao (Liang Xueqin) arrives back in her hometown without explanation. We know she would much rather remain in Guangzhou, but not what she did when she was there or what happened to send her home again. She is, to be honest, not a sympathetic woman. She considers herself superior to those around her, dresses differently to her neighbors, and washes her hair daily despite being criticized for extravagance. The role is played superbly by Liang. She performs numerous scenes of rudeness, self-involvement, and relative cruelty; she regularly chats to a friend back in Guangzhou via social media, mocking her family and bemoaning her own state of affairs. She also teases her way around two potential boyfriends without much sympathy for either. Despite these negative qualities, Liang ensures that Ciao Ciao feels like a real person, and therefore – while not likeable exactly – is still identifiable and sympathetic.
She could date a charming hairdresser (Zhou Quan), who hails from Guangzhou himself and seems to be the closest thing to her sense of civilization that the town can offer. She could also go out with Li Wei (Zhang Yu), an ill-tempered neighbor who gambles away his money or spends it on sex workers. The film’s handle of sexual activity is unexpectedly frank for Chinese cinema, but it emphasizes Li’s aggressive personality and impulsive nature. While she is the woman who left for the city, Li is the one who stayed – neither of their respective choices appears to have done them much good.
The mutual incompatibility of rural and urban China goes head to head, with increasingly ugly behavior enacted against a stunning landscape. Director Song Chuan presents Ciao Ciao’s story in Yunnan, with its striking combination of orange-red soil and bright green vegetation. The countryside is beautifully captured throughout the film, with several key scenes showing Ciao Ciao talking on her phone to friends in Guangzhou and seemingly oblivious to how attractive her home is if she would pause to look at it. There is a strong sense of place to the film that Song works to his advantage.
In contrast to most Chinese films of this style – which typically avoid a musical score – Ciao Ciao is peppered with an idiosyncratic electronic soundtrack by French musician Jean-Christophe Onno. In a sense it matches Ciao Ciao herself, since both feel out of place. In the case of Onno’s score, it works brilliantly and helps make the film stand out among its contemporaries.
The film’s dour tone increases as it goes on, and the likelihood of Ciao Ciao returning to the city shrinks. The film’s conclusion seems rather abrupt; it feels as if it has not been fully earned by earlier scenes. That said, this is an altogether excellent film in a crowded genre. Fans of Chinese independent cinema will find plenty to enjoy.