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Berlinale Bloggers 2019
Teenagers crossing the divides

The Crossing
The Crossing | © Po-Wei Lin

Coming-of-age films show the once-in-a-lifetime process of transitioning from child to adult. This year’s Berlinale features several films in this genre, some of which are outstanding.

By Chen Yun-hua

Mid90s is one such film about a boy becoming a man. He has to go through some brutal struggles before coming to realize his own strength. In typical coming-of-age films, the girls, on the other hand, tend to be up against a world that is significantly less cold and violent. Examples are I-Ju Lin's short, Tiptoe (踮脚尖), in which, as in Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, a girl has to take on the role of mother to her little brother after the parents’ disappearance. Or Bai Xue’s The Crossing (过春天), in which a daughter grows up in unfettered freedom because the parents don’t look after her.

Teenagers also overstep boundaries in the form of school rules and regulations, as in Derek Kwok Cheung Tsang's Better Days (少年的你) or Geneviève Dulude-De Celles’ Une Colonie.

Une Colonie Une Colonie | © Danny Taillon

Escape from the reserve

The boundaries in Une Colonie lie between the Canadian Abenaki reserve and a white neighbourhood, between rich and poor, majority and minority – and, in the classroom, between in front of and behind the teacher's desk .12-year-old Mylia isn’t like the other girls: she’s intimidated by unfamiliar surroundings, doesn’t have a boyfriend or wear makeup, and spends her time after school building a hut in the woods. Mylia meets Jimmy, who lives with his grandmother on the Abenaki reserve. Both had a childhood different from their classmates’: they never had colouring books and don't understand why the outlines are already printed on the paper. They’re used to drawing whatever occurs to them, not colouring-in between the lines. To them, much of the adult world is about such rigid lines, such as the fixed, immutable divide between the white majority and indigenous minority. But in the second half of the film, after Mylia meets Jimmy, we see fewer confining doors, windows and fences. Mylia breaks free from a life of confinement and isolation, as the images open up accordingly.

Une Colonie Une Colonie | © Danny Taillon
Une Colonie is less black-and-white in its schematization of good-and-bad than pictures like Eighth Grade or Thirteen, even though it also depicts a world of complicated struggles, and even though boys and girls here don’t understand life outside their own circles either. Close-ups of slight modulations in their facial expressions reveal a great deal about relations between teenagers in the schoolyard, even if feelings are otherwise quickly masked. Discrimination against Canada’s indigenous peoples is only touched on in passing, even though the subject is covered in their history books at school. And Jimmy, a descendant of a First Nations tribe who doesn’t even speak his native language, has to embody such serious post-colonial issues of ethnic discrimination.

When border-crossing becomes transgression

The boundary in The Crossing is a border between two big cities. And another boundary is crossed when the world of adults, with all its complexities and entanglements, encroaches on the world of a teenage girl. 16-year-old Peipei is from Hong Kong but lives with her mother across the border in Shenzhen, in mainland China, and takes the train to Hong Kong every day to go to school. Her mother devotes her time to playing mah-jong and to her new boyfriend, and her father, who works nights at a shipping yard, is also by and large absent. Left to her own devices, Peipei grows increasingly close to her best friend. The dreams of these two girls aren’t all that big: they just want to go to Japan and see snow. To raise money for the trip, Peipei agrees to smuggle iPhones across the border.

The Crossing is bathed in ubiquitous shades of light blue and green: the school uniforms, a pencil case, a purse, the railings at the station, even the city streets at night under the dim streetlamps, the pedestrian bridge by the flea market, the water in the pool and the boys’ clothes at a party on a yacht.

Crossing Crossing | © Po-Wei Lin Peipei is always in motion. When she walks, her movements are captured en face by a hand-held camera; when she’s on the train, the landscape flies past the windows. The train windows at night reflect the lights of Hong Kong, though none of them falls on Peipei.

She is continually confronted with divides: between her father, who speaks Cantonese, and her mother, who speaks Mandarin; between a savvy smuggler and her naïve mother; between the warehouse for the contraband in an old tenement and the underground garage into which it is smuggled on the other side of the border; between her own small flat and the vast estate of her shark-breeding aunt; between owning the latest iPhone or not, and between waiting tables for a meagre hourly wage or making a bundle in no time as a smuggler – these divides are everywhere in her life.

Crossing Crossing | © Po-Wei Lin From the calm of Une Colonie to the tumult of The Crossing, from the forests of Canada to the sea of skyscrapers and high-rises in Hong Kong and Shenzhen – the boundaries these young people cross are always self-defined, because only when crossing the line do they realize where their own boundaries lie. Both of these debut films are not only standouts in the coming-of-age genre, they’re also breakthroughs for their directors, who’ve successfully crossed the boundaries from shorts and documentaries to feature films.