As we enter the last release wave of true Covid films — those titles both produced during and concerned with the real-world crisis — first-time director Ma Xue introduces a new sort of pandemic film in her debut White River‘s meandering sexual release valve. Situated on the other side of the White River from Beijing, Yanjiao is known as the “sleeping city” after the people who work in Beijing but sleep in Yanjiao. Made in South Korea by a Chinese national, Ma’s Mandarin-language film recalls both the sexually explicit romantic films that have of late become increasingly impossible to make within China and, perhaps unironically, the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who obviously inform Ma Xue’s sense of urban dissatisfaction, wandering lost characters, and the extraordinary focus on uber-ordinary individuals. White River is an unrestrained and unfiltered penetration into the depressive social isolation and unambiguously apathetic spirit that pervaded the worst of the Covid years, a time prolonged in the country it originated in thanks to the “Zero-COVID” policy.
Filled from start to finish with a plethora of explicit and borderline intense sex scenes, White River is neither a romance nor a drama. In fact, the only sub-genre to ascribe to White River that even makes any amount of sense is the pandemic film, where lockdowns, quarantines, testing, and social bubbles fill the frame as just another part of life. But the sub-genre simply puts non-indiscrete clothes on the near-pornographic assay of sexuality. Instead, Ma’s feature piques interest as an episode of sexual maundering in the life of Yang Fan (Yuan Tian), a married woman who allows the pandemic to disrupt her life heretofore built on routine. The intercuts of depressed, unpopulated, and foggy urban landscapes, as well as images of a mysterious teenage Yang Fan, issue a mood of idle hollowness and confusion. All of the film’s sex revolves around Fan: self-pleasure with ice cubes, monogamous sex with her partner (the typically meek Song Ningfeng), non-monogamous sex with a waiter (Xu Weihao) from a nearby restaurant (while her husband watches with vigor through a peephole), and, finally, the climatic inclusion of both male lovers in a threesome. There’s rarely any direction, tension, or even passion to White River‘s sex; it’s probably also inaccurate to describe the sexual encounters as a journey of self-discovery. The sex is meandering for the sake of meandering, almost pointless in its emotional insignificance. And sometimes that’s just how sex is: rote and meaningless.
That’s not to say the sense of eroticism is necessarily cold or fully dispassionate. Ma approaches sex as something mundane, akin with cooking or grading homework. Her camera, under the guidance of cinematographer Ash Chen, occasionally slips into an almost textured dream state through its lighting — not unlike the cloudy warmth of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled — though, in this case, that feel reflects the liminal space of Yanjiao more than it does a romantic atmosphere: a place geographically isolated from the neighboring and life-bristling city of Beijing and chronologically stuck in the ick of pandemic time. Most often, the camera doesn’t distinguish between sex and the mundane at all. Anal sex featuring a cucumber and a scene of the living room being vacuumed are, more or less, shot in the same way.
Yang Fan’s voyeuristic husband is enabled through a small hole in the wall that, on the other side, pokes the eye out of a replica of Georg Desmarées’s portrait of Maria Antonia Walpurgis of Bavaria. The painting itself doesn’t seem to hold any symbolic representation beyond its cursory aesthetic values: the portrait of a luxury-rich (Western) woman and its representation of high art. As the threesome proceeds and Yang Fan’s satisfaction becomes palpable, she puts a flower in the eye of the painting. On a purely plot level, the secret vantage point is no longer necessary in this new relationship; from an artistic level, in this redecoration of Desmarées’s classical portrait, Ma rebels against prudish European art standards and makes a deviant statement about sex on film: in itself, and not just when serving some other artistic purpose, sex on screen can be artful.
She’s not wrong in this assertion, and White River makes a significant contribution to the ever-ongoing cultural discourse, but the flipside of this approach means that the sex just isn’t ever rendered in a way, rhetorically or aesthetically, to make this point as effectively as one can assume Ma and co-screenwriter Xu would have preferred. The film is also packed with so much sex that it will test the patience of many viewers by leaving little space for anything else, and losing presentational novelty rather quickly. Of course, the monotony of intercourse is also quite the point here, and so it ultimately becomes difficult in this wandering record of female sexuality to reconcile these two competing forces: mundanity as study vs. mundanity of execution. Perhaps, rather than punctuating White River with a poignant symbolic gesture, Yang Fan only places the flower in the painting because Ma Xue thought it lent the final scene a venerable texture. After all, plenty of great film endings have come about simply because a director thought something looked cool.
DIRECTOR: Ma Xue; CAST: Yuan Tian, Xu Weihao, Song Ningfeng; DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement; STREAMING: December 1; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 31 min.