By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The ragged transitions between scenes in this otherwise exquisite first film directed and cowritten by actress Joan Chen can be explained: She shot the deeply moving story — about a city girl who goes terribly astray when she is ”sent down” during the Cultural Revolution to work the land in remote Tibet — without permission from China’s official film bureau. As a result, Chen was unable to watch dailies or do reshoots on Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, since she smuggled the film out to prevent confiscation. (The Shanghai-born star of The Last Emperor was reportedly fined and banned indefinitely from working in China.)

Still, it’s clear Chen has a natural filmmaker’s eye for composition, pacing, and tone, gracefully asserting her own style over a melodrama that draws on the Chinese cinematic taste for tragic subject matter. The tragedy is that eager, innocent Xiu Xiu — played with astonishing aplomb by Lu Lu, a 17-year-old who projects the beautiful gravity of Gong Li — loses her inner bearings in her desperation to return home and descends into prostitution. And the taciturn horse trainer to whom she is apprenticed (Tibetan actor Lopsang, who expresses plenty with his eyes alone) is impotent, literally, to save her. A