The Country and City in Pretty Big Feet

Erin Palombi

The individual evolution of and relationship between Zhang Meili and Xia Yu, the two main characters in Yang Yazhou's captivating film Pretty Big Feet, serves as a symbol of the evolution of and relationship between rural and urban living in China. The two women, and thus the two ways of life, have things in common, which keep them somehow bonded, and things in contrast, which are gradually shared between the two entities.

Over the course of the film, Zhang Meili and Xia Yu share many important unifying experiences. Brought together by one of these common experiences, teaching, the two seem like polar opposites who will never be able to understand one another. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that the two will become great companions who end up inheriting some of each other's most defining traits. Some more apparent commonalities include the losses these two women suffer. In the first few scenes of the movie, through a series of disturbing and artistic clips, it is made clear that Zhang Meili's husband was executed many years previous to the film's "present day." Similarly, Xia Yu suffers the loss of a husband, though the manner in which he departs is drastically different. He divorces her, presumably due, in part, to her newfound loyalty to the country. Yang Yazhou presents this to the viewer in the final scenes of the movie, which creates a nice symmetry of events. Another loss the two women share is that of an only child. Zhang Meili, the director informs the viewer, lost her son when he was only seven. Xia Yu, after discovering that she is pregnant, decides to have her baby aborted. Again, though the two methods of loss are extremely different, they bring the two women together. Zhang Meili's losses are more tragic and out of her control, and completely unwanted. In contrast, Xia Yu's losses are both in her control (or at least partly, in the case of her divorce), and are conscious and well-thought-out decisions. This illustrates the differences between the two teachers' personalities, as well as symbolizes the differences between the country and the city.

Zhang Meili, who represents the country, differs (especially in the film's first half) from Xia Yu, who represents the city. As discussed above, the two women's personalities are evident when the viewer learns of their private lives and their reactions to the events that comprise those lives. Zhang Meili, characteristic of the rural life that she symbolizes, takes nothing for granted. In one example, after Xia Yu washes her dusty hat, it is her first reaction to throw out the dirty water. Zhang Meili sees this and saves the water in time to give it to her students so they can wash their hands. In another example, after Xia Yu tells Zhang Meili of her abortion, Zhang scolds her and asks if she gets rid of a child simply because she didn't want one at that moment. Xia Yu's actions illustrate her and the city's unfeeling, self-centered, spoiled character. Zhang Meili (the country) also treasures family, and though she has lost her own she ascribes her feelings of familial loyalty to her students. This is contrasted by Xia Yu (the city), who does not yet understand the value of family and ends up robbing herself of a child and divorcing her husband. Finally, Zhang is treated unfairly and unfeelingly (like the country and its people, both of which she symbolizes) when her husband is taken from her and executed. Xia Yu, who symbolizes the city, is accustomed to getting what she wants (nice clothes, a wealthy husband, the ability to get rid of an unwanted child), and does not know what it is like to be unfairly treated.

Towards the end of the film, the two women seem to switch roles. Suddenly Zhang Meili wishes for the city life. In a speech to her students she begs them to "study hard so you don't grow potatoes all your life," and in her dying words she says "if I have a next life, I would be one of the city people." Perhaps this is the final result of all her suffering; she wants to be able to enjoy what she wants without having it taken from her, and she doesn't want to be looked down by anymore. Likewise, in the end, Xia Yu begins to appreciate the country. This is illustrated in the scene in which she freely rolls down a dirt hill and doesn't mind the dirt she once abhorred��proof, perhaps, that she has learned the most important lesson that city values like wealth or cleanliness are inferior to country values such as tradition and family.

From Beep-Beep to Baaa

Shanna Wolthuis

Pretty Big Feet is a movie about sheep. As the camera rolls across the barren countryside, there seems to be a constant flow of the white fluffy herds. And as we enter the schoolyard, the yard of children seem to hold the same formation. To showcase the herd-like mentality of the kids, one of the first scenes involves Wang Da He stealing a can of coke and jumping down a mud hill, the rest of the herd soon follows after. Another example of the children as sheep metaphor comes when Zhang Meili escorts Xia Yu to the city, but the kids will not stop following their shepherd. Once all the children are allowed to come all the way to the city as well, Teacher Zhang yells at them for letting the cityfolk perceive them as animals, with Wang Da He's donkey call.

The people in the city are not like sheep. They all have style and independence. The movie may not illustrate it clearly, but the foil to the country sheep is the city car. Instead of following peacefully and obediently��although sometimes wandering astray for lack of intelligence, like Zhang Meili's late husband��the people in the city drive encased in plastic walls, beeping and going to their own engagements, cut off from each of the other cars around them. Even the relationships are not strong, showing in Xia Yu's divorce.

Zhang Meili's relationship with Wang Shu also attests to the country people being like sheep in that they sometimes follow tradition blindly. Wang Shu will not divorce his wife and be happy with Meili even though his wife beats him and the fighting in their family is very hard on their son. Being sheep is not always bad, however. Yang shows the great community that is created and the care that come with the countryside. Zhang Meili, the shepherd in this situation, takes great care of Xia Yu, with the orange tea, and caring for her after her abortion, even though she has no specific obligation to do so; kind of like in the Christian tradition which proclaims that the shepherd is servant to all.

But Zhang Meili is no ordinary shepherd. She is training the children to not just follow blindly in the way that their fathers before them have done. She is trying to instill in them the independence and aspiration of the cars' direction without them losing the humanity of being living creatures in a community.

When Xia Yu comes to the sheep community, she sees nothing worthwhile in their dirty, mundane existence. Neither does her husband when he comes to visit. But as she is about to leave with him, she sees the care of the countryside in the offering of orange tea. As her partner leaves her to the dirt fields, he walks through the sheep, black leather, black sunglasses, black bag, black pants, trespassing through the white herd until the peaceful grazers are the line that separates him from his wife. In the end, Xia Yu joins the herd and slides down the mud hill, because car's never seem to work in the countryside.

Life Lessons Through Relationships

David Yontz

Yang Yazhou's Pretty Big Feet is a poignant film about the values of simplistic living and the insight that can be gained from forming unlikely relationships with people who come from backgrounds that are different from one's own. These ideas are exemplified through the juxtaposition of the film's two primary characters, Zhang Meili and Xia Yu.

Zhang Meili is a widowed woman from an impoverished desert village in northern China who dedicates her life to teaching the children of her community. Xia Yu is an educated woman from Beijing who sacrifices her comfortable city lifestyle to help the ignorant Zhang Meili teach "her children." Though they come from different walks of life, each woman shows herself to be ambitious and courageous, and it is in sharing these common qualities that they are able to form a powerful bond.

This is very much a film about relationships, and the transformations people undergo as a result of them. An important aspect of the story is the transformation Xia Yu experiences as a result of her time in the village. Although she initially comes to rural China with the intent of using her superior city education to teach the ignorant village children, Xia Yu herself ultimately learns lessons about life from Zhang Meili and the children.

At first Xia Yu has a supercilious attitude towards the village, and is appalled by the rural life style. For instance, she is unable to drink the water, which to her appears disgusting and contaminated. She is also constantly upset, even when Zhang Meili is trying in her own humble way to help ease Xia Yu's transition into village life. For example, in an early scene, Zhang Meili takes the liberty of washing Xia Yu's laundry for her, only to be chastised by Xia Yu, who is furious at Zhang Meili for handling her clothing without first consulting her. In her anger she fails to recognize Meili's good intentions.

Likewise, there are times in which Zhang Meili becomes angry towards Xia Yu as a result of their differing attitudes towards life. When Xia Yu becomes pregnant midway through the movie, she immediately has an abortion, which greatly upsets Zhang Meili, who no longer is able to have children. However, Xia Yu's conduct is not from her lack of character. If anything, she aborts the baby out of selfless devotion to teaching. Rather, she behaves in this way because of the outlook on life she has learned from living in the fast-paced, impersonal city, which clashes with the outlook of country people like Zhang Meili.

By the end of the movie, however, both of these characters have developed a great platonic love between each other. A profound moment occurs in the scene in which Xia Yu kneels beside Zhang Meili's hospital bed after she has been hit by an oncoming train. Before she dies, Meili says to Yu, "�in birth, people come into the world crying; in death people should leave this world laughing." These words may be interpreted as a maxim for the ideals of the simple country people who, despite the hard ships of their existence, strive to make the most of their lives and enjoy the simple pleasures of living. This is certainly true for Zhang Meili, who find great joy from her students, despite the tragedies of her life.

This message is clearly inspirational to Xia Yu, who in the final scene of the movie runs and slides down the side of a large dirt hill, just as the school children do earlier in the film. This action on Xia Yu's behalf may be seen as being symbolic of Yu's newfound acceptance and reverence for the simplicity of village life. Just as she thrusts herself over the hill, into the dirt, she is metaphorically thrusting herself into the rustic lifestyle from which she feels repelled earlier. Also, in accordance with the dying words of Zhang Meili, Xia Yu is letting go of her inhibitions and leading life to the fullest. It is thus that Pretty Big Feet ends with an uplifting message about the beauty of relationships and the virtues of simple rural living.

A Clash of Cultures

Dana Bustamante

"Pretty Big Feet" portrays a cultural and idealogical clash between China's rural and urban populations. Zhang Meili represents the rural culture, while Xia Yu is a symbol for the urban. The two experience countless misunderstandings and are incompatible without sacrificing many of their own values and customs. In addition, while Ms. Xia has the freedom to move or change her situation, Ms. Zhang is stuck where she is. By using characters that represent different cultural environments, Yang Yazhou portrays Chinese urban and rural populations as unable to coexist, due to cultural differences and misunderstandings.

Ms. Xia is a symbol for urban life in many ways. Her clothing, which is very fashionable but impractical for daily life in the rural areas, brings out the rural-urban tension in several scenes. In one, she is upset because Ms. Zhang ruined her clothes by washing them. This is a prime example of a culture clash. Where Ms. Zhang lives, washing someone's clothing is a rare, kind and valuable, particularly because water is so scarce. To Ms. Xia, washing her clothes was bad because it destroyed them. Intelligence and education are also characteristics of Ms. Xia and the urban life that she symbolizes. When she first arrives at the school, she corrects Ms. Zhang's mistakes. She also introduces technology in the form of a computer to the school and students. Such technology is virtually absent in rural China. The values and attitudes of the two women differ greatly. In the beginning, Ms. Xia is disgusted, though somewhat subtly, by the children's unsanitary behaviors or sliding down the dirty hill, or licking their fingers to turn pages. She is used to a clean environment, and takes water for granted. She must change when she arrives in the town where everyone stops what they are doing to try to collect rain as soon as they hear thunder. Her urban values do not fit into the rural setting. Another important example is when Ms. Xia gets an abortion. This is a selfish and private decision characteristic of a woman who is metropolitan, worldly, and liberal minded. In Ms. Zhang's eyes, Ms. Xia simply threw away her child, which was a great gift and would have defined Ms. Xia as a woman. Ms. Zhang was angry and disappointed with her, because she placed great value on family life. Freedom and control over one's life are also characteristic of urban society. Ms. Xia can easily change her life, and does not understand that Ms. Zhang does not have this same freedom. In a scene when they are drawing water from a well, Ms. Xia tells Ms. Zhang that she should move to a more convenient life. Ms. Zhang explains that she cannot leave, and emphasizes her need to educate the children, showing another thing she values greatly. Ms. Xia also feels that Ms. Zhang should do something for herself, and pursue a relationship with "Film Wang." This speaks to the values city dwellers put on individual choices as well as on freedom.

Due to their differences, Ms. Xia and Ms. Zhang experience numerous misunderstandings. We can see that Ms. Xia could not survive in the rural area if she retained her urban characteristics. She must sacrifice many of these in order to get by, and she can do so because of her freedom and control. Ms Zhang, not having this same freedom, is trapped in the rural setting, and, in the end, meets her death there. Ms. Zhang's death relates to her lack of control over the situation of great ignorance and poverty present in the country, although she managed to leave a lasting impression on the children and Ms. Xia.

City Riches versus the Passions of the Country: Two Mentalities

Kara Lee Gongaware

The story of Yang Yazhou's film, Pretty Big Feet, was wonderful because it has many aspects of meaning. A rather large section of the story shows the difference between city and village life and attitudes. Another part is about the initiation of Xia Yu as a village teacher and a third part spotlights Zhang Meili's determination and efforts to give her students a successful future.

The differences between city and village life first becomes evident in Yang's film when the new teacher from the city, Xia Yu, arrives wearing black, expensive, stylish clothing and a hat that was for statement rather than necessity. Then when Zhang lets Xia take over teaching the class, Xia instantly claims Zhang to have pronounced a word wrong and Zhang must accept the criticism. Xia also lectures on hygiene immediately, such as the donkey drinking from the same bowl as humans and toiletry. This scene, Xia's first teaching, not only shows the difference between city and village life, but also gives away Xia's opinion of Zhang and villagers; she finds the villagers primitive, unmannerly, and unsophisticated. Another such scene is when Xia leaves because she is suspected to be pregnant and later returns having aborted the child. Zhang seems to be angry at Xia over this because in the country the woman's role is to bear children and Zhang has already lost both her husband and son so she cannot understand why any woman would abort her child on purpose. To Xia, though, it is not a big deal to abort a child because in the city it is just another way to control population growth, and besides, she was not ready to be a mother. The third scene that showed the difference between city and country attitudes is when Xia and Zhang are playing basketball at sunset and Xia gives Zhang advice about her affair with Wang Shu. Xia is open minded about the affair, but warns Zhang that she must want the relationship to make it happen and that she does deserve to have a life of her own. Zhang is confused and realizes that the affair is wrong and wants it kept quiet but Xia encourages the relationship throughout the movie.

As the story progresses Xia and Zhang become friends and Xia even admires Zhang's passion and determination to teach the students and care for their welfare. The fact that Zhang is so determined to give the children what they need to study well that to get the money for a computer she sleeps with the flour factory manager. Zhang also lectures the students about dignity and manners as well as making a good impression on the city people so they do not have to depend on the goodness of Xia ever again, instead they should work to gain a future where they can depend on themselves. Zhang's dedication to the student comes from the death of her husband because he had been uneducated and so got caught selling railroad spikes cheap which was illegal and resulted in his death. Zhang then began teaching to prevent such a thing from happening again. Zhang wants her students to study hard to become just a sophisticated and prosperous as the city people.

Xia loses her husband, divorce, later in the story because she comes to love teaching in the country and returns to the village. She visits Zhang on her death bed and at that point is handed the role of teacher in Zhang's place. Throughout the story and in all the scenes that have been talked about above, Xia is going through a process that eventually leads her to take over Zhang's role/ identity as caretaker and teacher of the students. Xia learns of passion in daily life and dedication to those you care about. When Xia slides down the muddy hillside, she is accepting her life as a villager and now walks in Zhang's shoes (as the saying goes).

In the end when Zhang on her death bed claims to have big feet as well as throughout the movie she claims to be a failure at life this is because she has the mentality that women must have a son and a husband to have a successful life. As for big feet, there are some remaining expectations of beauty from before the Cultural Revolution that small feet make the woman more beautiful and successful than a woman with big feet. Of course, Xia continuously comforts Zhang by saying that she is successful after all she is the one who cared and taught the children who would have become nothing more than their parents had, had Zhang not become a teacher.

Urban and Rural Unite for the Children

Brady Robertson

Pretty Big Feet, (2006) a Chinese film directed by Yang Yazhou, is a film about how the urban and the rural come together for the children, and everyone benefits. The film starts out by establishing the negative aspects of both the rural and urban worlds. But then it takes a more positive turn and shows how rural and urban sides bring their own ways to work together and help the children. And in that process, both the rural and the urban gain things from the other and come out the better.

Pretty Big Feet spends the first act laying out the negatives of the rural world and the urban world. Yang Yazhou details the appalling state of poverty that the small village lives in. The first and most striking instance is when Xia Yu, the young teacher from Beijing, is nonchalantly drinking a Coca-Cola, when she sees a young boy take notice of it, she hands it to him, and he swiftly runs off with it, almost immediately all of the children see his soda and chase after him. To save his soda, he jumps off the face of a cliff, and all of the children follow him without pause. This shows how truly impoverished they really are, a coke would be something that any urbanite would not consider a valuable object, but to the kids it is so important that they risk their health to chase the child with it down the mountain. Again when Xia Yu takes her vitamins, Zhang Meili is shocked by it, whereas Xia Yu does not think that there is anything out of the ordinary about it. Yang Yazhou makes it a point to clearly explain that there is only one well in the whole village, and he lingers there to really drive his point home that the well is really all they have. The people who represent the urban life, mainly Xia Yu and her husband, come in with many negative aspects, such as the clothing-washing incident. When Xia Yu overlooks the fact the Zhang Meili has done her a great favor, and all that Xia Yu can think about is the fact that they don't match now. Or when her husband drops the orange, and when the children come to pick it up, he acts as if they had assaulted him, just because he is offended when they will not take his offer. Both are negative views of how people from the urban world act.

Once the negatives are established, the film goes to show how the two sides start to work together because they are united by the common cause of helping the children. The rural people do everything that they can to help the children. They manage to squeeze their already tight budget and get three thousand yen to help buy a computer. Zhang Meili really represents the heart of rural culture, and she gives everything that he can to the children to better their lives, even drinking a whole bottle of liquor for them. In the end they are able to sell their potatoes so that they can finally get more things for the children. The urban people also contribute to the children; Xia Yu was the person who started the whole idea of improving their lives. And she pushed to get them out of complacency. She and her husband take them to the city and provide them with new clothes, and open the door to independence by giving them the chance to meet with the rich businessman in the city.

In the end, both parties come out on top by working together, Xia Yu comes a way with a sense of what it is to be selfless, and learns to not be so vain. And Zhang Meili is pushed out of complacency with her and the children's lives, and gains the means of making a profit

Pretty Big Feet

Bradley Vance

Pretty Big Feet is a movie that speaks to the constant struggle of rural people to adapt to modern technology without sacrificing their cultural identity. Even the teacher, Ms. Zheng is conflicted about the lifestyle in Beijing. She says, "Don't be potato farmers," indicating that she wants the children she teaches to escape the hard lifestyle of the country. However she also says, "Don't trust people in sunglasses," because she distrusts many of the ways of the city.

The idea of escape and renewal in this film is strongly reinforced by symbolism. In the opening scenes Zheng leads her children through the dried up river bed near their village. Throughout the film this river figures prominently in the symbolic landscape. Because the river is dry the people are forced to arduously collect water from the well. In this way the dried up river bed symbolizes the hardship of country life. Also some character names speak to the same analogy. The precocious young student is named Wang Da he, which means "big river". Wang Da he is an example of a child who is in desperate need of education. He is unquestionably bright and eager to learn. However he is also mischiveous [mischievous] and without education he would probably turn to a life of crime. The college educated teacher is named Xia Yu, which means "to rain." The analogy here is undeniable. As it is the location next to a river represents a tremendous potential for the villagers. However because it never rains the river bed lies dry and stagnant. Similarly Da he has huge potential. However without a good education he will be just like the dry river bed. To Da he, Xia Yu represents what rain is to the river. The message here is both profound and well crafted. My only issue with this film is that it deteriorates towards the end, resorting to overpoweringly dramatic music and cutaways of crying children to get its point across. The best example of this is the scene where Zhang reprimands Da he for amusing the city person with his mule impression. She delivers a powerful speech about the value of education culminating in the most powerful line of the film, "Don't grow potatoes." In my opinion this scene would have been much more powerful if the filmmaker hadn't resorted to tacky music and camera work. The speech in itself is tremendous. Why take attention away from its powerful message with these unnecessary trappings?

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