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Review: Women from the Lake of Scented Souls-Xiang Hun Nu (1993)

Director: Fei Xie | 105 minutes | drama | Actors: Gaowa Siqin, Yujuan Wu, Baoguo Chen, Kesheng Lei, Xiaoguang Hu, Xiaoqing Ma, Linlang Ye,

Sometimes you come across a movie where the title alone makes you want to see it. This is also the case with “Women from the Lake of Scented Souls”, a title that makes the imagination run at full speed. It has something magical, something enchanting, but above all something tragic that makes you dream about legends of bygone cultures. And yes, the by director Fei Xie (“Black Snow”) knows how to hypnotize with images and has enough drama, but about the traditions of a still existing culture.

Xiang (Gaowa Siqin) is not lucky, her husband turns out to be an alcoholic good-for-nothing and their son is mentally left behind. In addition to all the work for her sesame oil business, she also has to do the housework. When a Japanese entrepreneur shows interest in her sesame oil and starts investing in it, Xiang decides to find a wife for her son Dunzi. She herself seeks comfort in the arms of a married man. The opening shot is immediately of great beauty. Accompanied by Chinese eru music, the camera skims over the water of a lake with sesame oil fields on either side. This natural beauty contrasts sharply with the difficult task of the villagers to make a living.

The lake takes its name from a legend. In the Qing dynasty, the daughter of a blacksmith and a landowner allegedly committed suicide by drowning in the lake. Since then it has been called the “Lake of Souls.” That this legend does not just pop up, we see in perhaps one of the most impressive scenes. A hilarious scene in which Xiang, in her eyes, is offered too luxurious gifts from the Japanese businesswoman, and is not sure what to do with them, seamlessly transitions into a moving drama.

When the Japanese investor tells Xiang that her husband can appreciate the scarf, it is impossible for Xiang to keep her emotions under control any longer and she tells her dramatic childhood story. How she was sold by her as a seven-year-old girl and tried to drown herself in the lake of souls. Xiang comes across as a calculating woman, very shrewd when it comes to her life and family. She does not shy away from hurting others in favor of her own situation. This is reflected in the search for a wife for Dunzi. Xiang pressures Huanhuan’s debt-ridden parents to get her married to Dunzi. She does this knowing that Huanhuan actually loves another. Yet she cares about Huanhuan’s fate and little by little her heart is thawing. The contrast between Xiang’s almost chilly woman and her passionate escapades with the married Ren gives the a complex emotional layer.

Women from the Lake of Scented Souls won the 1993 Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival. A successful year for Chinese cinema, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” took home the Golden Palm that same year. “Women from the Lake of Scented Souls” is a painfully good representation of the difficult situation of the Chinese rural woman, bound by traditions and customs, they are often stuck with a more or less hopeless future. Beautifully portrayed.

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