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Hot Docs 2024: Director Fan Wu injects big ideas into enchanting XiXi about an artistic vagabond from China

XiXi is a woman from Beijing who pursues her artistic passions with abandon across Europe.

In film school, students are sometimes told to “show” rather than “tell”. That is often accomplished through the plot or interactions with other characters. But in Taiwanese director Fan Wu’s dreamy XiXi, which is being shown the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, some of the most compelling moments actually come in the narration.

Wu’s nimble and deeply personal documentary revolves around her blossoming friendship with the free-spirited Wanru “XiXi” Yang.

XiXi is an uninhibited artist and vagabond from Beijing who hitchhikes across Europe, sleeping wherever circumstances lead her. She dances indoors and outdoors, recording her life on video as she goes.

Meanwhile, her buttoned-down ex-husband, a French engineer named Médéric, is raising their young daughter in a proper French home with his girlfriend.

XiXi is a true original, piercing through conventional beliefs with iconoclastic comments on child-rearing, the price of musical fame, and the benefits of a domestic life. XiXi appears to take delight in defying expectations as she flips between Mandarin, English, and French. This stands in contrast to Wu’s narration about her grandmother, who conformed to societal values in her homeland of Taiwan.

“In the culture where XiXi and I come from, it is believed that each human being is born like a rock—each with its own edges and corners,” Wu declares as the narrator. “And all this unique sharpness and roughness would eventually create clashes between this person and society. So, an ideal passage of life is to gradually remove all the edges like a stone being ground down while travelling down the rivers.

“This painful grinding is considered meaningful because in the end society may stay in harmony and no one gets hurt.”

Watch the trailer for XiXi.

XiXi goes in unexpected directions

But what happens when someone like XiXi refuses to allow her unique sharpness and roughness to be gradually removed? And conversely, what is the long-term cost for Asian women who choose to conform? In this meditation on freedom, Wu deftly addresses these questions in a storyline full of surprises.

“Now that I am spending time with XiXi, I realize what my deepest fear is,” Wu says at one point. “Does loving someone mean to voluntarily give up one’s own life to cut away part of oneself?”

XiXi is a captivating and emotionally resonant film with two likable central characters. But even more importantly, it’s full of thought-provoking ideas that moviegoers can consider in relation to their own lives.

Watch a Hot Docs interview with filmmaker Fan Wu.

Hot Docs Festival presents XiXi at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday (April 30) in Scotiabank Theatre 5. The festival will also present the film at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday (May 4) in Scotiabank Theatre 6. For tickets and more information, visit the Hot Docs Festival website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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