Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
NYAFF ’15: River Road
is hard to believe, but the current administration actually believes the
Chinese government is onboard with their climate change protocols. Of course,
these are the same people who believe the Iranian regime is a partner for
peace. One look at the environmental degradation of China’s provinces and Tibet
ought to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. Sadly, it is particularly apparent in northwest
Gansu, the traditional home to Yugur (“Old Uyghur”) herders. Viewers will see
how dry and desiccated the once fertile grassland has become in Li Ruijin’s River Road (trailer here), which screens as
part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.
language is Turkic or Mongolic-based and their religion is Tibetan Buddhism.
Their way of life is rapidly vanishing, but Adikeer and Bartel’s grandfather
provides a link to the older, better days. Bartel, the older brother, lives
with the old man, while his younger brother boards at their primary school.
Their father promises to return for them at the end of the school term, as
usual. However, each year he arrives later and later, because he has ventured
further afield in search of grazable land for his herd. Unfortunately, after
their ailing grandfather passes away, the boys find themselves waiting in vain
for their father. With no other options, the lads set out, making their way
home on camelback.
Gansu has become desert, desert, desert everywhere, with not a blade of grass
to graze. There is not a lot water either. It will be a harsh journey, but the
older, entitled Bartel petulantly wastes much of his own in the early stages.
In contrast, Adikeer was born to be his father’s son, instinctively
understanding the desert’s challenges. However, he begrudges the hand-me-downs
and perceived second class treatment he receives from their family.
are some stunning shots of the boys walking through apparently abandoned cliff
dwellings, cave paintings, and temples, almost resembling space travelers on an
extinct alien planet. This is clearly a dire and deadly world. There are also
very real stakes involved in their fraternal conflict. We come to understand in
believably compelling terms how their resentments are rooted in misperceptions
of necessities dictated by the family’s circumstances. Naturally, an arduous
camel trek will only further fray their relationship.
the intimacy of the story, Li still incorporates an awareness of the region’s
once grand history, which only deepens the sense of tragedy. He and
cinematographer Liu Yonghong convey a tactile sense of the region—it’s hot and
dry. Yet, amidst the wasteland, a small contingent of Buddhist lamas represent
hope (and sacrifice). As the film’s lynchpins, the co-leads, Tang Long and Guo
Songtao are remarkably natural and unaffected, truly looking like rugged
River Road is a vividly
naturalistic depiction of environmental devastation and the extreme privation
of the economically marginalized. Ironically, this means it is highly unlikely
most movie-goers in the People’s Republic will have much chance to see it. The
sympathetic portrayal of the lamas does not help much either. For those in less
restrictively censored markets, it is an exhausting but rewarding viewing
experience. Recommended for those who appreciate independent Chinese cinema and
endangered cultures, River Road screens
this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, NYAFF '15