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A heart-wrenching, heavy-handed story of a life adrift

Even by Chinese soap opera standards, ''Stolen Life" is an especially tortured tale of woe. It's bleak and heart wrenching, and full of unhappy, damaged people. So it probably didn't need to be set in a dank Beijing basement, too.

But veteran Chinese director Li Shaohong (''Baober in Love," ''Blush") and writer Liao Yimei aren't going for subtlety in this pushy, melodramatic film. They want nothing less than your full sensory participation. It's just that sometimes they want it too much.

The unfortunate heroine of ''Stolen Life" (a.k.a. ''Sheng Si Jie") is Yanni (Zhou Xun), a troubled student who's adrift from the film's beginning. As a child, Yanni is given over to an aunt and grandmother who resent her. While viewers could debate whether Yanni is officially abused, she's at least undervalued, and her mother's visits only deepen the hurt and estrangement she feels.

Yanni grows into a woman who is, in her own estimation, ''superfluous." The past has left her empty and emotionless, though not unsalvageable. To most everyone's surprise, she tests well enough to get into college, and for a brief moment it looks as if her life might turn a sunny corner.

But on her very first day at school she meets Muyu (Wu Jun), a friendly truck driver who's quick to capture her heart and steal her dreams. Soon after, she becomes pregnant and is forced to make several hard choices, none of which will be spoiled here but all of which should be assumed to have grave consequences. If you didn't already read a sinister tone in the cramped, claustrophobic urban netherworld where Muyu keeps his basement apartment, Li drops the metaphorical sledgehammer when Yanni retreats for days inside the mosquito netting of the couple's bed, like a delicate fly trapped in a spider's web.

Zhou's controlled performance keeps the scripted melodrama somewhat in check, which is especially appreciated when Li insists on a more-is-more aesthetic. Too much of the ''Stolen Life" camerawork by Hu Gao and Zeng Nian-ping is jarring in a way that adds nothing to the story, but Zhou's plain expressions cut through the visual noise when they're needed most.

As one of China's foremost female directors and a respected member of the Fifth Generation filmmaking class that produced Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, Li can't ever make a film without the burden of considerable expectation. This one hits home in places, but overall it begs for a lighter touch.

Janice Page can be reached at

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