For those of you who thought Juno didn't treat the subject of teen pregnancy seriously enough, have I got the film for you!
Dam Street opens in Communist China in 1983. A young girl named Yun (Liu Yi) has gotten pregnant, and despite her best efforts to hide her growing belly, she is eventually found out. The father of the child is immediately shipped to another province, and his sister, a doctor, agrees to deliver the baby privately. Yun's mother, looking to divert some of the shame her daughter has brought on the family, conspires with the doctor to give the baby boy to an adopting couple and tell Yun he is stillborn.
Ten years later, Yun is still unable to live down her scandalous youth. She is working as a singer in a local performance troupe, and though she wants to sing traditional opera, the public demands only pop songs. She is lonely and in a destructive relationship with a married man, stuck in a town that is beginning to embrace the modern world and yet still unwilling to let her past die. One night while visiting her mother, a teacher at the elementary school, Yun meets one of her students, Xiao-yong (Huang Xingrao), a harmless troublemaker who becomes smitten with the singer. He begins following her around and doing things to try to impress her, and eventually he becomes her friend and protector.
Dam Street is the second feature film of writer/director Li Yu. The socially conscious filmmaker's previous film was the 2001 lesbian relationship picture Fish and Elephant, and she has since released the critically acclaimed Lost in Beijing. She is a serious-minded storyteller whose work shows a lot of sensitivity to characters stuck in a social environment intent on restraining their true feelings. Dam Street is a quiet drama full of pain and sadness and the occasional quiet joy. Its greatest strength is its brutally raw realism. Li Yu doesn't try to prettify anything. Everything in her movie is run down, from the buildings to the people. With an early career rooted in television documentaries, Li Yu is a director who likes to show life as it is.
This approach means that Dam Street gets problematic when Li Yu tries to inject more traditional dramatic turns into the script. It shouldn't be hard for anyone to guess who Xiao-yong really is to Yun, particularly after the way the mother's trick is explained in a rather detailed interstitial caption rather than shown on screen. (There is also a similar caption in the third act that serves as an unwelcome jump forward in the story.) If Li Yu wanted her audience to be kept guessing and be shocked when the truth became known, there were several cards she could have kept in the deck to keep us from seeing her hand.
Thankfully, Dam Street isn't about the clumsy machinations of typical melodrama, and so these fumbles are easily glossed over. There is a lot more going on here than who has kept secrets from whom. Liu Yi's deeply felt performance as Yun is brimming with sadness, and a genuine rapport develops between her and first-time actor Huang Xingrao that lends an honest emotional weight to the film. Both characters are missing something in their lives, and they both find it in each other. Though fate has its own designs for both of them, and despite the downbeat rhythms that push Dam Street along, Li Yu manages to bring some hope to the surface, leaving her audience with the feeling that this chance meeting will give both the woman and the boy what they need in order to finally grow up.
A PDF file of a "Discussion Guide" can be accessed through your computer. This has biographical information and quotes about the movie from director Li Yu, cultural and historical information about China, and discussion questions for movie clubs or, I suppose, teachers wanting to show the movie.
Dam Street also comes with a booklet containing more information about Global Lens and a one-page write-up of each of the films in the 2007 collection.