China, 2009, colour, 1.85:1, 127 mins.
Director: Hasichaolu 哈斯朝鲁.
Cultural Revolution tale of a scientist in a village develops into a moving, subtly directed drama.
Northern China, 1968-79. In the early years of the Cultural Revolution three agricultural scientists – ambitious Shi Chao (Zhu Hongqi), easygoing Lin Han (Gao Yiwei) and bespectacled Yuwen Hui (Cheng Taishen) – arrive in the tiny village of Shuiwozi, in a dusty plain, to help solve the chronic saline-alkaline problem which has been destroying its wheat crop for years. Early work is wrecked by visiting Red Guards and a propaganda team; Shi Chao engineers his return to Beijing; and Lin Han also later leaves. However, Yuwen Hui stays on alone, and party branch secretary Zhao Juetou (Dong Jinfu) assigns local orphan Yang Ruxia (Gong Zhe), whom Yuwen Hui had earlier helped in a local dispute, to cook for him. Yang Ruxia forms a close bond with Yuwen Hui as he faces more setbacks, and finally his wife, Jiang Ziqian (Huang Ke), arrives with their two children. But as the years go by he still gets no closer to a solution to the problem.
Though it’s directed in a far more accessible style, and is not at all folkloristic, Good Earth 大地 recalls Yellow Earth 黄土地 (1984) of a quarter-century ago in its story of outsiders trying to identify with taciturn yokels and their hard-scrabble existence. On the surface, the movie would appear to be a rote drama about do-gooders from Beijing “turning the desert into fertile land” (as the Cultural Revolution slogan had it), but like the recent CR-set drama Lan 我们天上见 (2009) it actually becomes a moving personal drama thanks to the script, the excellent performances, and absolutely unmelodramatic direction by Inner Mongolian director Hasichaolu 哈斯朝鲁 (The Old Barber 剃头匠, 2006) that ellipses more than it shows, especially in the relationships between the main players in the second half.
In the lead role as the scientist who just won’t give up, Cheng Taishen 成泰燊 (In Love We Trust 左右, 2008), looking every bit a scruffy bespectacled intellectual from the era, manages to give his potentially cardboard character Yuwen Hui some depth, but it’s the unspoken emotional triangle between Yuwen Hui, his wife and local girl Yang Ruxia that provides the personal trigger during the second half. The playing by Huang Ke 黄柯 of the wife signally avoids becoming a cliched city type, but it’s Gong Zhe 宫哲 (so good as the student in You and Me 我们俩, 2005, by Ma Liwen 马俪文) as the quietly passionate Yang Ruxia who ever so slowly becomes the movie’s emotional centre. Feeling cut out of Yuwen Hui’s life when his wife and family arrive on the scene, Yang Ruxia is an immensely touching figure – all the more so for the restraint shown by the actress and director on every level.
Other roles supply plenty of background texture in small touches, from the supportive party representative of Dong Jinfu 董金福 who knows how to double-talk his way round Red Guards to the quietly ambitious scientist colleague of Zhu Hongqi 朱宏奇. Even roles that start off as bits – such as Yuwen Hui’s aloof young daughter – are satisfyingly rounded off later. Photography by Hai Tao 海涛 of the blended Henan and Gansu locations is good-looking without dominating the human drama, and music by Cha Gan 查干 is sparing but effective.
Presented by Henan Film & TV Production Group (CN), Henan Film Studio (CN).
Script: Hou Yuxin. Adaptation: Fa Yue. Photography: Hai Tao. Editing: Wang Hongli. Music: Cha Gan. Art direction: Qi Ming, Zhou Xianjun. Costume design: Zhang Zixuan. Sound: Li Zhizhong. Executive director: Yin Liqi.
Cast: Cheng Taishen (Yuwen Hui), Gong Zhe (Yang Ruxia), Huang Ke (Jiang Ziqian, Yuwen Hui’s wife), Dong Jinfu (Zhao Juetou, party branch secretary), Gao Yiwei (Lin Han), Zhu Hongqi (Shi Chao), Chen Jiuhan (Shuanzhu, Zhao Juetou’s son), Li Yang (Yang Mandun), Qu Yi (Momo, Yang Ruxia’s younger brother), Wang Jiangjiang (Dongdong, Yuwen Hui’s son), Yu Ting’er (young Dandan, Yuwen Hui’s daughter), Zhang Zheng (teenage Dandan), Bo Bing (Zhao).
Release: China, 6 Nov 2009.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 22 Jul 2010.)