Virgin Blue — Niu Xiaoyu
Credit: Yu Tang Films (Anhui)
by Ryan Swen Film

Virgin Blue — Niu Xiaoyu

July 29, 2022

It’s perhaps become a moot point to invoke the shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul when talking about an emerging festival filmmaker’s work in the 21st century. Few directors have been as quietly but markedly influential as the Thai master, as his interweaving of the mundane and the ethereal is able to be harnessed in a vast array of styles and narratives. But it feels especially apropos when considering Niu Xiaoyu’s lovely feature debut Virgin Blue, which builds a whole solar system out of its simple premise: Yezi, a recent college graduate, goes home for the summer to visit her grandmother who raised her.

During the course of this stay, uneventful in “realistic” terms, the apartment that much of Virgin Blue takes place in seems to mutate and expand. As befits the semi-constant state of napping or sleep that Yezi and her grandmother occupy, this is a somnambulant film, filled with interludes explained partially by the onset of the grandmother’s dementia, partially by the memories that both women have together, and even more so by the supernatural figures that flit in and out, most notably Yezi’s grandfather, whose spirit is said to be visiting for a few days.

Early on, in a series of mistakes regarding the year, the grandmother balefully notes that she “always thinks it’s 2020,” and while the film appears to actually take place in that year — albeit without masks or apparent signs of the pandemic — that painfully apt sentiment says a great deal about the dislocation that the film revels in. Indeed, this floating quality is Apichatpong’s territory: fantastical musical interludes, nocturnal conversations with spirits; the film even ends with a similar gesture as Syndromes and a Century, though it lacks that film’s narrative precision.

But what truly distinguishes the film is its extravagant play with light and its moderate metafictional elements. There are moments inside the apartment where space and time seem transfixed, as the film’s subtly dynamic sound design comes to the fore and rays of light dance across the room, alighting on objects and clocks that seem to suddenly gain a new vitality as the camera patiently moves along with it. As much as the explicit occurrences of surreal intervention, these moments enhance the already serene quality of Niu’s largely locked-down frames, often playing out in long takes.

The ruptures alongside these scenes lead to one of Virgin Blue’s most fascinating qualities. At one point in the film, Yezi moves a sliding glass door that reveals a film crew; she turns around, only for the people to have vanished. Later on, the grandmother’s actress seems to have a conversation with an offscreen Niu, complaining about the confusion of filming as crew members and cameras are seen in the far background. These, along with other puncturing scenes, seem to get to the heart of Virgin Blue’s mystery and beauty: it’s a film open to possibilities, never straying too far away from these women’s figures and memories, and instead opening them up to new life and contemplation.

Published as part of NYAFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.