I was lucky enough to attend the UK premiere of UFO in Her Eyes as part of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival on Friday 13th April 2012. Prior to the screening, I attended a Masterclass with Xiaolu Guo during which she talked about her work, including the process of adapting her novel UFO in Her Eyes (her second novel written in English) to screen. The book itself is an account of a peasant woman’s encounter with ‘Aliens’, and is told through a series of witness statements, emails and other transcripts recounting the aftermath of this encounter. Translating this to screen was for obvious reasons difficult. If Guo had kept to the form of the book she would have alienated a great percentage of the audience as fragmentary literary narratives do not translate well to screen due to the formal qualities and limited temporal span of cinema. In the Masterclass, Guo pointed out that an adaption of a novel should not be compared to the ‘original’, but rather taken on its own terms, as cinema, and not a poorly translated version of a better original.
Having not read the book prior to the screening, the need for comparison which often becomes a pointless debate around the veracity of adaption, was not a consideration for me. On its own terms, the film is a visual delight and the performances of the largely non-professional cast a revelation. As with the book, the film relates the story of a peasant woman – Kwok Yun (Shi Ke) – who one day, after illicit sex with the local headmaster (who is married), Lee (Z. Lan), sees what she takes to be an alien spaceship in the sky. She passes out, and when she returns to consciousness she discovers an ‘alien’ intruder – a white American (Udo Kier) who has been injured. She rushes to report this to Chief Chang (Mandy Zhang), who, rather than being concerned with the veracity of the report, sees this as an opportunity to put the village firmly on the capitalist map – a tourist destination, complete with a themed hotel and park.
A satire on Chinese state capitalism, and the destruction of the land at the hands of the merciless processes of globalisation and consumerism, UFO In Her Eyes is an intellectual mediation on contemporary issues – that are not just limited to China but also affect many of us in the West – which managed also to be an engaging narrative about gendered expectations and the desire to escape the confines of such expectations. It is impossible not to empathise with Kwok Yun’s plight, especially when she is forced to marry the feckless Lee – who is only too happy to get rid of his complaining and obese wife in order to marry her – during a spectacle to celebrate the Disneyfication of her village. Her escape with the mute bicycle repairman (Y. Peng Liu) – who is rendered ‘alien’ within the community as a migrant – to the UFO of the title, offers a poignant pastoral antidote to the consumerist fantasies of Chief Chang.
While there is no doubt of the political intent of UFO In Her Eyes, it is also a beautiful piece of magic-realism, composed by a director in command of her material, that deserves to be seen by a wider audience than those at film festivals.