Li Mei lives in a tiny, rural village in China.
She has never been further away from her home than four or five miles.
She whiles away the time helping her father scavenge on the rubbish dumps, looking after the pool tables at the village haunt and arguing with her mother.
After being raped by a truck driver who she occasionally visits the cinema with she leaves home and heads for the city where she finds herself working as a prostitute and becoming the girlfriend of Spikey (a man who makes his living beating people up for gangsters). When Spikey has a meeting with fate and comes home fatally wounded Mei finds his stash of money and buys a ticket for a trip to Europe.
When she arrives in London Mei abandons her tour group and drifts from one cash in hand job to another before meeting Mr Hunt, an elderly widower who marries Mei to help her stay in the country and to provide some company aside from his cat. Mei soon bores of life with the pensioner though and sets up home with Rachid, a Muslim man, in the back room of his cafe. This relationship doesn't end well as Rachid bows to pressure from his friends at the mosque and decides to head back home to India leaving a now pregnant Mei to embark on the next stage of her journey alone.
Reading back over that this sounds like a dreadfully depressing film but it was far from it.
Mei is one of the most incredible characters I have seen on the big screen this year.
She flits from feisty to sullen, victim to manipulator, aggressive to passive...sometimes within the space of a scene. While she may seem to be the victim at several points you are never allowed to feel sorry for her as she bounces back with a vigor and determination that shows you that she is a force of nature, a whirlwind of emotion, a fighter as well as a lover.
The film itself is beautifully observed with comments on the nature of modern Chinese life, the position of women in the East and the West, the meaning of family, abuse of power and status...and all delivered with a real warmth and understanding from writer/director Xialou Guo.
The performance from Huang Lu as Mei was equally warm and convincing. When she arrives in England it is almost as if she becomes a completely different person let alone a different character...she had a real presence on screen and I found it almost impossible to look at anything or anyone else. With a running time of around 100 minutes Huang Lu is present for the entire duration of the film there isn't a scene without her. It's another one of those performances and films that makes you realise quite how poor the bulk of what the "mainstream" serves up really is.