A Disappearing Village
China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 84 mins.
Director: Lin Lisheng 林黎胜.
Drily black comedy of rural stubbornness is a small, independent gem.
A tiny village in Yunnan province, China, the present day. After being attacked by chicken thieves one night, village headman Lv (Wang Xueqi) is thought to be dead and his elder son, Lv Guo (Ren Long), who works for the county government, tries to assemble enough people to carry his coffin, including his younger brother Lv Shan (Zhu Yuchen) and village blacksmith Hu Dali (Hao Yupeng). However, when they arrive at the father’s home, he’s still alive, and as pugnacious as ever, refusing to talk to Lv Shan, who left home three years ago after a violent argument and has since been working as a mountain guide. Now he’s back in the village, Lv Shan looks up his onetime sweetheart, shepherdess Yuncao (Tang Yifei), whom he hears is about to marry a man called Zhou, but she gives him a hard time for having deserted her without any explanation. Lv Guo continues trying to renconcile his brother and his father, but the latter is extremely stubborn. Meanwhile, Hu is summoned in front of a village “morality court” by local dentist-cum-busybody Chen Yigui (Pu Xiaohu) for supposedly harrassing Chen Yigui’s sister-in-law, Chen Guihua (Wang Yan), whose husband disappeared four years ago. As the time approaches when all the villagers – for environmental reasons – have to move into new housing provided by the county government, Lv Guo’s father still refuses to leave the house he’s lived in for over 30 years. And until he leaves, none of the other villagers will, either.
Known as “China’s first ‘green’ feature”, A Disappearing Village 消失的村庄 was almost a disappearing film. Based on a 2007 online short story by a writer pen-named Yiren Youren 伊人游人, and shot in Yunnan in early 2008 with a cast of known actors, it finally surfaced in limited screenings at Beijing’s Broadway Cinematheque in March 2011 followed by an official release in June. The first fully-fledged feature by scriptwriter Lin Lisheng 林黎胜 (after directing a couple of movies for TV), it’s a beautifully performed, low-key rural comedy that rises way above its worthy eco-credentials – Yunnan villagers being moved to protect the environment – to tell a part-funny, part-touching story of family strife and paternal stubbornness.
There’s no shortage of Mainland movies about the vanishing ways of rural life, communities full of just children, women and old people, and villagers being moved into new housing. But Lin – a teacher at Beijing Film Academy’s Department of Film Studies who’s been writing TV drama scripts for over a decade, including hit period spy drama Borrow Gun 借枪 (2011) – brings a fresh spin to the material with a fine cast and some exquisite production values that place the film somewhere between an art movie and a semi-commercial black comedy. With the editing in the hands of the experienced Zhou Xinxia 周新霞, it’s cutting of the subtlest kind: without boring the viewer, Lin lets the characters move around within the widescreen compositions of d.p. Qu Li’nan 曲立南, and the gentle score (flute, voice, strings) by Shen Yiling 沈怡玲 sketches mood without becoming exotic.
The film’s humour and characterisation are entirely situational: the continuing hunt for chicken thieves who are troubling the tiny community, the establishment of an open-air “morality court” to try a “sexual harrasser”, and so on. As the father who refuses to move from his traditional family home, and won’t even talk to his younger son who’s finally returned home after a violent argument, veteran Wang Xueqi 王学圻 (Reign of Assassins 剑雨 , 2010; Sacrifice 赵氏孤儿, 2010) anchors the film with a dour humour that’s finally quite moving. He’s well matched by charismatic young TV actor Zhu Yuchen 朱雨辰 as the son in question, and by actress Tang Yifei 唐一菲 (the slinky villainess in Future X-Cops 未来警察, 2010), almost unrecognisable here as a feisty young shepherdess who gets her own back on Zhu’s character for suddenly deserting her three years ago.
Presented by Yunnan Golden Xiaoxiang Film & TV Cultural Media (CN), Fujian Film Studio (CN). Produced by Fujian Film Studio (CN), Leading Group Office of Colourful Yunnan Protection Movement of Yunnan Province (CN), Environmental Protection Bureau of Yunnan Province (CN), Huize County Party Committee & People’s Government of Huize County (CN), Broadcasting, Film & TV Industry Centre of the Bureau of Radio & Television of Yunnan Province (CN), Yunnan Golden Xiaoxiang Film & TV Cultural Media (CN).
Script: Lin Lisheng. Short story: Yiren Youren. Photography: Qu Li’nan. Editing: Zhou Xinxia. Music: Shen Yiling. Art direction: Feng Zhongming. Costumes: Li Xuena. Sound: Zhu Xiaojia, Zhao Ya’nan. Consulting: Qin Guangrong. Viual effects: Wuhan Oriental Time. Executive director: Li Chen.
Cast: Wang Xueqi (Lv, father), Zhu Yuchen (Lv Shan, younger son), Tang Yifei (Yuncao, shepherdess), Ren Long (Lv Guo, elder son), Hao Yupeng (Hu Dali, blacksmith), Xu Jindong (Houdan, young policeman), Pu Xiaohu (Chen Yigui, dentist), Wang Yan (Chen Guihua, Chen Yigui’s sister-in-law), Ying Baolin (Houjing), Nie Xin (Dudu), Wu Xueqin (thief).
Premiere: Broadway Cinematheque, Beijing, 11 Mar 2011.
Release: China, 9 Jun 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 9 Jun 2011.)