Sunday, September 13, 2009

89. Chinese director Wang Quan’an’s “Tuya’s marriage” (2006): A wedding that looks back at marriage and life

The emerging cinema of mainland China offers quite a different whiff of fresh air compared to the new winds of change in cinema that one encounters from Iran, Korea, Spain, Turkey, or Mexico. Filmmakers of China are classified by a particular generation--each generation espousing a particular political and social viewpoint under the watchful eye of Big Brother. The resulting impact of the cinema of each Generation on the filmgoer, of course, is by all accounts distinct. Catching international attention are specifically the Chinese filmmakers that belong to both the Fifth and the Sixth Generations of the Chinese mainland filmmakers (as distinct from the Hong Kong and Taiwanese brand of Chinese cinema), most of whom are products of formal Chinese film institutes. The Fifth Generation filmmakers are associated with the Eighties and the Nineties and their typical cinematic works capture the socio-political configurations that emerged on the heels of the Cultural Revolution in China. Their productions exhibit rich production values, matching the best in Europe and Americas, with unorthodox methods of storytelling. These movies captured the hearts of film-festival enthusiasts, beyond the shores of China. The Sixth Generation of filmmakers, associated with the late Nineties and the current decade, unlike the Fifth Generation, have made their mark by adopting documentary-like approaches to realistic fiction, capturing the social changes of the day while seeming to consciously reject the high quality standards of the Fifth Generation while infusing a streak of individualism. The director of Tuya’s Marriage, Wang Quan’an belongs to this Sixth Generation.

Tuya's Marriage, which won the highest honors (Golden Bear) at the Berlin film festival in 2007 and the Special Jury Prize at the Chicago film festival 2007, was shot in China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region (which some viewers seem to confuse for the neighboring Mongolia, an independent nation). Director Wang Quan’an (or is it Quan’an Wang?) has done a rare feat in Chinese cinema—making a film that is centered on an individual rather than a group of individuals. Tuya is a woman—a herdswoman taking care of 100 sheep, two children and a husband Bater, crippled while trying to dig a well for his family. Water, we learn, is a scarce resource—Tuya has to travel a great distance on her two humped camel. She is young and attractive but resolute that she has to take care of her family for ever in spite of her tough life. It is important for non-Chinese viewers to note that the state only allows one child per family in China, yet Tuya has two!

Of course, even though Tuya's Marriage centers around one individual Tuya, director Wang has an escape clause that would please the Chinese authorities, if the question were to ever crop up—the principal character is constantly caring for others, kith and kin. For his third feature film, Quan’an ropes in a major collaborator on the project. That person is Lu Wei, who wrote Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (Golden Palm winner at Cannes and Golden Globe winner in Hollywood) and Zhang Yimou’s To Live (Cannes winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury). Lu Wei and Wang Quan’an present a tale that might make occidental viewers wonder if such dedication to family life exists today—it’s a tale of a woman who seeks a divorce merely because she loves the family intensely, and hopes she can win a new spouse who will take care of the entire divorced family. It is an amazing love for the family by an individual that is presented by the filmmakers that bewilder the authorities depicted in the film, then the suitors of Tuya, and finally, the audience.

Typical of the Sixth Generation filmmakers, many characters such as Tuya’s crippled husband Bater and Tuva’s neighbor-cum-suitor Senge in the film are local habitants of Inner Mongolia without amy acting experience picked up by the director, quite in line with original neo-realist traditions. In contrast, the lead character of Tuya is played by Yu Nan, a professional actress, who has acted in all the three films made by the director and has won best actress awards for all three performances at three film festivals in succession (the French Deauville Asian film festival for the first, the Paris film festival for the second, and the Chicago film festival for Tuya’s Marriage). It is not surprising that the Wachovsky brothers’ (of Matrix fame) cast her in their recent film Speed Racer (2008).

Any ordinary filmmaker presented with Tuya’s story would probably have opted to end the film with a finite conclusion to the unusual tale. The director and scriptwriter begin and end the film with the scenes of a wedding of Tuya—while the film is specifically about the married life of Tuya. Wang Quan’an ends the film with tears flowing down the face of Tuya. Who are Tuya’s tears for? That is the question the film asks of the viewer. Are they for her divorced crippled husband, who loves so her intensely? Are they for her children constantly getting into trouble? Are they for her true lover that Tuya recognizes at last? Or are the tears for her new husband waiting in another tent to marry Tuya, accepting all her conditions of marriage? Or are the tears for the no-win situation that Tuya finds herself in? The last few minutes of the film remind you of the quiet, soft power of the end of another film: Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton.

The film succeeds in capturing the Sisyphean existential dilemma of the sensitive and ethical individual eclipsed by society’s demands of different hues. I have subsequently learned that Wang Quan’an’s mother came from the region shown in the film, where economic development is fast displacing the shepherds of Inner Mongolia. I have also learned that the non-professional actor playing the taciturn Bater (who had the best lines to speak in the film) was a herdsman who after doing the role in the film was forced to become a peasant following decisions made by the State. I also learn that the film is made in Mandarin language and not in Mongolian, the language spoken in those parts of China shown in the film, a decision possibly take to help the lead actress who speaks most the meager spoken lines in the film. Much more than spoken words, the film communicates through the documentary feel of the film helped by the German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier, who has worked with the director on the last two films.

It is indeed difficult to classify Tuya’s marriage. Is it a docudrama? Is it a love story? Or is it an existential query?

P.S. Films of three Fifth Generation filmmakers have been reviewed earlier on this blog--Zhang Yimou's Not one less (1999), Zhang Yang's Getting home (2007), and Gu Changwei's Peacock (2005)--all internationally lauded works of cinema looking at aspects of family values in modern mainland China.