China, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 96 mins.
Director: Yan Ran 闫然.
Modest but interesting road movie centred on two rural kids on the cusp of New China.
Guizhou province, southern China, spring 1980. Schoolboys Zhao Qiangsheng (Ma Guoxing) and Fulai (Wang Shibin), who’ve spent their whole life in a remote village, hear from a PLA soldier about a thing called a “city”, full of people, buildings and cars, three mountains away. Full of curiosity, and with the orphaned Fulai fed up with being passed around the community, the two set off to reach it when their school is closed for five days. They first pass through a Miao village, where land is being reallocated under the changeover from the commune system to individual ownership, and join in the celebrations after passing themselves off as a local bigwig’s children. Next day they cadge a free meal at a house where the eldest son, Long Jianguo (Zhang Hanyu), is about to return to the “city”, where he tells his family he has an important position in a factory thanks to its manager Liu (Wu Liansheng). Continuing on their journey, they get lost and meet Ding Xiaoya (Yu Na), a runaway who’s being pursued by her ex-husband (Xu Yukun). Ding Xiaoya is determined to get home to Beijing, and accompanies the boys to the “city” – provincial capital Guiyang. While there, they help Ding Xiaoya on her way, fall foul of a gang of thieves led by Monkey Ma (Xiao Jian), and re-meet Long Jianguo in suprising circumstances.
Shot in spring 2009 but only released in spring 2011 – on the same day as the director’s second feature, mine-disaster movie Together 幸存日 – Sweet Journey 云下的日子 is a children’s road movie that’s of more interest for its period and unconventional touches than as a film per se. Set in the backward province of Guizhou at a time when China was taking its first steps away from communal to individual ownership, this first feature by director Yan Ran 闫然 , 37, is both an advert for the country’s success 30 years hence and a partly nostalgic look at a vanishing way of life.
Thanks, however, to a strong cast including the always-good Zhang Hanyu 张涵予 (Assembly 集结号, 2007; The Message 风声, 2009), actress-model Yu Na 于娜 (much better here than in the lame comedy Chongqing Girl 重庆美女, 2009), and the two child actors (especially wide-eyed Ma Guoxing 马国兴), Journey is much more than just a paean to national development. Yan’s direction, though often conventional, is full of quirky touches in the way it introduces and handles characters: Yu’s young Beijinger, a victim of the Cultural Revolution to send city-dwellers to the countryside; Zhang’s ex-villager with a murky history of betrayal during the same period; the leader of a group of child street thieves, played by comic Xiao Jian 肖剑 (the little law official in My Own Swordsman 武林外传, 2011); and even a mad poet in the big city.
Using a technique of rapid fades between sequences, and with photography by Wu Di 邬迪 (known for his work on the films of Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅, He Jianjun 何建军 and Ma Liwen 马俪文) that’s equally at home in the awesome mountain scenery of Guizhou as the more down-to-earth streetlife of Guiyang city, the film is always an easy sit. Period detail has a natural look and, in Zhang’s reined-in performance as a man who knows it’s time to change along with the times, it has a solid core. Only a coda set in the modern day is too conventional in what is a small, but interesting, directing debut. The film’s original title means “Days beneath the Clouds”.
Presented by Pearl River Film (CN), Changchun Meichen Film (CN), Beijing Dongfang Tianding Culture & Media (CN). Produced by Pearl River Film (CN), Guizhou Daily Newspaper Group (CN), Changchun Meichen Film (CN), Beijing Dongfang Tianding Culture & Media (CN).
Script: Ouyang Qiansen, Yan Ran. Photography: Wu Di. Editing: Chen Lili, Lu Jia’na. Music: Ju Wenpei. Art direction: Di Kun. Costumes: Wei Xiaoyan. Sound: Zhang Jinyan. Visual effects: Li Jinhui, Zhang Chao.
Cast: Zhang Hanyu (Long Jianguo; adult Fulai’s voice), Yu Na (Ding Xiaoya), Wang Qianyuan (adult Zhao Qiangsheng), Ma Guoxing (young Zhao Qiangsheng), Wang Shibin (young Fulai), Xiao Jian (Ma Houzi/Monkey Ma), Wu Liansheng (Liu, factory manager), Xu Zhifei (soldier in lorry), Xu Yukun (Ding Xiaoya’s ex-husband), Asano Nagahide (Xiaoliu, clothes-shop owner), Pu Xiaogui (Miao village production leader), Li Mengming (Li Mancang), Wang Anguo (Fattie Long), Niu Huimin (mad poet), Liu Yongkai (brother-in-law).
Release: China, 8 Mar 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 28 Nov 2011.)