Taiwanese actors Ivy Chen Yi-Han & Yang Zishan join Hong Kong Cantopop singer Fiona Sit Hoi-kei in Hong Kong writer-director, and NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate Barbara Wong Chun-Chun‘s new film Girls.
SPOILERS: Yes, they’re coming. If you don’t want them, stop reading now, and come back after you’ve seen the film. But I might suggest that this isn’t a film that can be “spoiled.” Girls is not a murder-mystery ever marching toward Who did it!? Girls is a relationship journey. If you happen to already know the plot, that just lets you focus even more on the lived moments.
My college roommate Mimi used to read a lot of novels. The first thing Mimi did when she got a new novel was to read the last page. Then she’d go to page 1 and read the rest. Mimi didn’t want her entire 400 page experience to be about How does it end!? So she just got that out of the way right away. And then allowed herself to focus on what really mattered, the journey.
I can’t know your taste or level of aversion for spoilers, but perhaps any spoilers below, far from spoiling anything, will just let you focus even better on these 3 compelling women, the events in their lives, and their relationships with each other.
Our journey with these 3 lifelong friends begins at their college graduation and moves quickly to the pivotal event in the film, the discovery that Chen’s fiance is cheating on her. With Chen stepped away, Yang & Sit spot her fiance with another woman. They are ordering food at a counter and Sit exclaims one of the few English sentence in this otherwise Mandarin film,
What the fuck!?
3 Friends for Life
In Girls Ivy Chen Yi-Han’s Xiwen is The Girl Next Door, Yang Zishan’s Xiaomei is The Artist, and Fiona Sit Hoi-kei’s Kimmy is The Debutante. All are beautiful and all seem to have zero financial concerns, but it is Kimmy who is presented in the most elegant and powerful ways. While Xiwen
& Xiaomei are defined by their insecurities and vulnerabilities, Kimmy, although the same age, possess a confidence her friends have never known.
Or so we are told.
In Girls we are told that Kimmy has an endless stream of boyfriends, yet we never see her with anyone. There are 3 men in the film: 2 boyfriends for Xiwen, 1 for Xiaomei, and at least as far as we see, none for Kimmy. It’s curious that the character alleged to date the most, is never seen dating anyone at all. Is the Kimmy mystique a fiction? Or are her relationships somehow not as interesting? Throughout this film it is Kimmy who appears to have the power. We see it first in her very loving care for Xiwen when her fiance dumps her. Later we see Kimmy at her most destructive when she doesn’t approve of Xiaomei’s new boyfriend.
Girl Next Door
For all the confidence and strength Kimmy claims to have, and for all the control we see her exert over Xiwen and Xiaomei, it is ultimately frail Xiwen who has the real strength. Girls is ultimately Xiwen’s film.
Xiwen’s vulnerabilities are right on the surface while her true strength comes from a much deeper place. Kimmy is the opposite, her strength is broadcast to the world, and it is her vulnerability that is hidden. Later in the film Kimmy’s jealousy over a pop star that Xiaomei dates tears the trio apart. Kimmy’s jealousy is curious in that the pop star never paid any attention to her at all. They weren’t dating the same guy, he was never interested in Kimmy, he fell almost instantly for Xiaomei . So why does a woman with this endless string of boyfriends care if her best friend dates some pop star?
Xiwen is an nonfunctioning blob of emotion, disappointment, and depression for much of this film. But Xiwen’s emotion is always real. She can be selfish, but she is always honest. Her actions, even when pathetic, always make sense. And when called for late in the film, her clarity and focus when Xiaomei and Kimmy are falling apart is absolute.
Kimmy the Paradox
Kimmy is always a paradox. Her early support for dumped Xiwen is as beautiful as her later jealousy over Xiaomei’s happiness is ugly. Kimmy ultimately doesn’t make sense. Her strength is a superficial illusion and perhaps her legions of boyfriends are as well.
Making as many bad choices as possible, Kimmy manages to destroy Xiaomei’s new relationship. Wounded Xiaomei goes drinking at a bar and ends up fighting off a rapist with a glass ashtray. Xiaomei thinks she’s killed him and Xiwen and Kimmy rescue her from the bloody scene. It turns out he was only unconscious and the dark nightmare is somewhat relieved. In spite of the intensity of that scene and the catharsis of the experience, I’m unconvinced that a real life Xiaomei could ever truly forget the evil her lifelong friend has spat upon her.
Women’s Private Parts
And then it’s a year later and Xiwen, Kimmy & Xiaomei are being interviewed by the film’s director Barbara Wong Chun-Chun playing herself in what purports to be a new segment of her real 2001 documentary Women’s Private Parts. It’s a year after all those incidents and the women have worked everything out. As they always are, Xiwen, Xiaomei & Kimmy are charismatic in this scene, but I couldn’t buy it. I don’t see how Kimmy and Xiaomei reconcile after all the ugliness they’ve now shared.
Vacation, all I ever wanted
The last scene of the film is the 3 friends taking a European vacation and throwing coins in a fountain. They appear to have returned to the emotional start of this journey. Yet the innocence of throwing coins in a fountain feels unearned. This isn’t truly seeing something for the first time because of the experience of the journey, as much as it is sweeping that journey under the rug and trying go back and forced-live that childhood innocence again.
Girls is a beautiful film. We have the chance to spend time with 3 compelling actors as they breathe life into 3 beautiful women. Barbara Wong Chun-Chun is a sensitive director who guides us from nuanced moments of pain and joy, to slapstick, to ugly confrontation, in a full range of human emotion. For me Girls is a success. I wish I could accept Kimmy and Xiaomei’s reconciliation, but I can’t. It’s a flaw in the film. But it’s still a better film than anything by Michael Bay.
Boys on the Side
Save for it also being about the experiences of 3 women, the 1995 American film Boys on the Side has many differences from Girls. While Xiwen, Kimmy & Xiaomei have endless affluence, many of the choices made by Whoopie Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker & Drew Barrymore’s characters are defined by their financial limitations. They’re not lifelong friends either. They start a road trip because ailing Parker needs a travel companion and broke Goldberg can’t afford her apartment. There is much to say about the compelling performances by Goldberg, Parker & Barrymore, and about the complexity and heartbreaking beauty of their relationships.
For now, I’ll simply note that late in the film Parker’s character holds such a bitter grudge against Goldberg’s character for an act that we the audience can understand. How hard it is for Parker to forgive Goldberg’s well-intentioned transgression makes an interesting counterpoint with how easily Xiaomei winds up forgetting about Kimmy’s vile offense.
With Ivy Chen Yi-Han’s performance of Xiwen, we see a complete human being. Frailty. Strength. Longing. Love. Xiwen is arguable the least ambitious of the 3 women. Or the most traditional. Yet she is also the clearest on who she is. Her weakness comes in finding that self-identity torn apart and her strength comes in reasserting it.
Kimmy is unsatisfying in that there seems so much left unexplored. Yes women can be as destructive as she is, but why is she? There must be a vast hole in Kimmy’s life. Perhaps it is the difference between her public face and her real life. With Xiwen we intruders and voyeurs are allowed to see her at her lowest low. We never see that with Kimmy, we have to infer it from her paradoxical actions.
The only on-screen evidence for Kimmy’s many boyfriends being fictional is her playing with bodybuilder photos on a tablet, and her New Year’s Eve WhatsApp-ing messages to her girlfriends. These brief moments do suggest that there’s more loneliness than alleged. Yet it’s not only Kimmy who claims that Kimmy is always dating someone, Xiwen & Xiaomai say it too.
Kimmy is also problematic in that as played by Fiona Sit Hoi-kei she is stunningly beautiful. Sure, stunningly beautiful women can have relationships end just like everyone else. But it’s pretty hard for them to be single for very long. It feels like a stretch for her to bother taking that much time and energy just to screw up her best friend’s relationship.
We mostly are not afforded the opportunity to see Xiwen’s unexpected strength face-to-face with Kimmy’s unexpected pettiness. We do in the one Xiaomei-might-just-have-killed-the-rapist scene, where Kimmy is a hopeless bundle of nerves as Xiwen drives their opulent Mercedes with confidence and poise. But previously, when Kimmy attacked Xiaomei, Xiwen somehow sides with Kimmy. Allegedly Xiwen doesn’t want Xiaomei to leave the country on the pop star’s tour. This might have been the moment where Xiwen could have held the trio together, but she allows Kimmy to ruin everything.
I’m not sure I can ultimately believe the 3 friends do maintain their cohesion through it all. But I am sure that their diversity is what makes their relationship sparkle on the screen. Under Wong’s direction, Chen, Yang & Sit take the time to let us experience palpable human moments with them. Even when Xiwen is pathetic or Kimmy petty, they are powerfully alive. It is a treat to spend time with them.