It’s just after the global economic crisis has hit Beijing in 2009 when we meet two sisters caught in the grip of economic forces in China in Marlo Poras’ The Mosuo Sisters. The well-delineated documentary follows the pair as they are forced to make difficult, often painful, decisions between life at home or in the city, with their hopes and dreams hanging in the balance.
Juma, the 25-year-old main breadwinner of her extended rural family, and her sister, 22-year-old Latso, hail from a remote Mosuo village in the Tibetan Himalayas, where matriarchal traditions are quietly eroding.
The sheltered pair left home and, after undergoing urban-culture shock (they thought highrises were single homes), found work at a Beijing bar. Juma is employed as an entertainer, while Latso works there at night and takes accounting courses by day.
When a sharp decline in clientele due to the recession forces the bar to close, the sisters reluctantly return to their village near Lugu Lake in Yunnan province. There, their aging mother decides that Juma will continue to pursue work in Chengdu while Latso must stay at home to help the family farm.
Neither path is without its price to pay, and the necessity of their personal sacrifices, a matter of survival for their entire family, take their toll on the two women. Juma is faced with uncomfortable, even threatening, situations in her relations with bar clients. Meanwhile, Latso is deeply pained at having given up pursuing her newfound calling as an accountant. Expenses weigh down on Juma and the burden of single-handedly carrying the entire family’s financial future threatens to do her in.
Yet it is when male love interests enter the picture that rifts develop between the sisters. Each one sees what is best for the other in a different light as underground tensions surface.
While other documentaries have captured the plight of migrant workers, Poras’ comparison of the two sisters' lives illuminates what each of them has given up. The resulting portrait is at once personal and universal, with an effective exploration of the tensions between individuality and familial ties.
The film also provides a view of a culture that most Chinese people consider “exotic”. The Mosuo people practice “walking marriage”, in which spouses remain living separately at their family homes, and mothers are considered the most powerful figures in their world. Yet cellphones and bedroom posters of Britney Spears reveal the penetrating reach of globalization.
As both Juma and Latso experience, the bottom line is always survival. Both their culture and their lives are subject to the ebb and flow of economic tides; their only hope is to find new ways to shore up the remnants of their battered dreams.
The Mosuo Sisters plays on May 6 (12:30 p.m.) at Vancity Theatre as part of the Rated Y for Youth series.