Once in while a film will transcend its generic limitations and manage to make something new and fresh out of elements that seem overly familiar. The young Chinese director-screenwriter Bai Xue manages this with her first film The Crossing. Young high-school student Peipei (impressive newcomer Huang Yao) comes from a split home: her father is a security guard in Hong Kong, but Peipei, though she has Hong Kong citizenship, lives with her mother across the border in Shenzhen. Peipei goes to high school in Hong Kong, and her daily border crossings are at the foundation of the film’s plot. While partying with her rich classmate, she meets some young Hong Kongers who make money sneaking iPhones across the land border into Shenzhen (there’s a commuter train and a crowded border crossing point, at Lo Wu, where many of the film’s tense crossing scenes transpire). Peipei falls in with them, and eventually becomes a valued courier. She starts with two to four phones at a time, but eventually is called on to wear a belt under her school uniform with dozens of devices, with unexpected consequences.
What makes Bai Xue’s film click is not easy to specify. Unlike many similar Chinese indies, which dwell on symbolically overdetermined foolish young men who fall into petty crime, this one is about a savvy young woman making smart, calculated decisions in a world that offers her limited options. Her intelligence, vitality, and post-capitalist-ready opportunism make her not just an avatar of Hong Kong’s still extant vitality (as the city goes through a political identity crisis with no plausibly positive outcome), but also seems to mark her as an implicitly feminist answer to this genre’s standard patriarchal limitations. Piao Songri’s tensile, electric cinematography and frequent Jia Zhangke collaborator Matthiew Laclau’s creatively elliptical editing give the film a lot of its life. Bai’s cinema flows and sparks, and shows with intelligence and precocious authority how the problematic circulation (authorized or not) of goods, desires, and humanity across borders is at the foundation of our 21st-century existence.