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Crossing, The (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"One country, two systems, even for kids in high school."
4 stars

It will be interesting to see where rookie director Xue Bai goes from "The Crossing" in large part because it exists on several different sorts of lines. The story straddles the line between genre movies and coming-of-age tales without tipping too far in either direction and the setting itself is quite deliberately neither here nor there. It's a sure-handed debut that doesn't try to tell a universal story but handles the spots where it bumps into limitations well.

There are a lot of odd little quirks to Hong Kong having been a "Special Administrative Region" of China since the 1997 handover, such as how while Li Zipei (Yao Huang) and her mother live in Shenzhen, outside the SAR, her having been born in a Hong Kong hospital sixteen years ago entitles her to a Hong Kong ID card and admission to the school system, generally seen as advantageous (it was also frequently used to get around the one child per couple laws, though that doesn't seem to be the case here). Her best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) is a local, and they plan to take a trip to Japan over Christmas break to see snow. That takes more money than "Peipei" can easily raise, even hustling and working a part-time job, but it turns out that Jo's boyfriend Hao ("Sunny" Sun Yang) is in tight with people smuggling iPhones across the internal border - the rollout of new models to the mainland always lags the one to Hong Kong - and a schoolgirl who has made the crossing every year for a decade is likely to just be waved along even if she does have thousands of dollars worth of electronics in her backpack.

The Crossing isn't quite a story about a scholarship student trying to fit in at a private school with the rich kids, but it's certainly got some of that DNA to it. The things that separate Shenzhen from Hong Kong can be a bit subtler than usual, at least for those of us who are not Chinese - a few more English words used here, probably other differences in dialect elsewhere - and it does a nice job of muddying the whole idea of where Peipei belongs. Xue is not necessarily subtle about how she calls out certain signifiers of status, from how her first hustle is making cell phone cases for classmates (not unlike the sort of manufacturing jobs you find in Shenzhen) to the absurdity of owning a shark as a pet, but Peipei is also never quite an outsider. There are reasons why she belongs beyond her parents trying to game the system at birth

The question of how these two parts of China relate to each other fades to the background for much of the movie, in large part due to its young star. Yao Huang is immensely appealing and makes Peipei the sort of kid who is just smart and responsible enough to dig herself a hole because she takes that for granted; even when she's cutting class or otherwise getting into trouble, the viewer can see her better qualities, and Yao moves from pure enthusiasms to a kid who doesn't understand what she's feeling but feels it strongly without making those feeling seem arbitrary. The film will occasionally freeze-frame to highlight the caper parts of the story taking a turn, and Yao never fails to make Peipei worth lingering on in that moment.

Filmmaker Xue Bai appears to be one to watch as well, weaving the relatively simple story nicely and throwing in the occasional obvious flourish and some that don't announce themselves quite so clearly. There are nifty little bits throughout the movie - one of my favorites has Peipei's father going to the sidewalk for a smoke break while the pair are eating out and his reflection in the window seeming to stand across the table from Peipei like a ghost - and though some are simple, they're usually elegant. Having the crime be an element of the coming-of-age tale prevents some of the more glaring issues with the mainland restrictions on such things.

"The Crossing" is a nicely made little film that goes down easy without feeling particularly lightweight. There were moments while watching it when I did wonder, a bit, if it could have done more to really dig into the feeling of being a bit of an outsider despite allegedly belonging somewhere, although it's probably clearer to those closer in life experience to Peipei than myself, and the movie is certainly put together well enough that it reveals itself with a little reflection.

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originally posted: 03/22/19 03:13:00
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  15-Mar-2019 (M)

Directed by
  Bai Xue

Written by
  Bai Xue

  Huang Yao
  Carmen Soup
  Sunny Sun

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