Monday, October 19, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] Wheat (麦田)


It might already have been used in many films, but there's always something to having aesthetically pleasing shots of golden wheat fields basking under the yellow sun, setting the tone that this is going to be a very beautifully shot film by cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi with the visuals getting priority and set to wow, over a period drama set during China's Warring States period some 20 years prior to the Qin dynasty unification of China.

The state of Qin has invaded Zhao, and the Zhao king had ordered all available troops in a call to battle. Zhao's city of Lu Yi rises to the occasion, with the Lord Ju Cong (Wang Xueqi) commanding all men above the age of 12 to bear arms, leaving behind only the women to do chores and keep harvest while awaiting their return. In his absence, Ju Cong's wife Lady Li (Fan Bingbing) is left in charge of the city, and spends her lonely nights longing for the return of her husband, with sequences told in flashbacks to establish and develop this romantic angle.

Unveiling itself over 5 days (based on the elements of Gold, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth) in somewhat of a chapter styled narrative, it's pretty much a no-brainer to know which state emerged victorious. 2 deserting soldiers of Qin, Xia (Huang Jue) an elite warrior, and Zhe (Du Jiayi) the cowardly opposite, end up in the enemy territory of Lu Yi, but feigned to be from a neighbouring Zhao town, passing themselves off as allies, and lying through their teeth for survival, by telling the city full of women what they yearn to hear. Slight comedy ensues though with the tinge of bittersweet deceit, especially when we see how an eavesdropper so eagerly transmits the lies to the joyous rapture of the womenfolk, elevating the status of the 2 men to cult-like proportions (not to mention the suggestion of some horniness too in their never ending failure to hoist or rip them of their clothes).

Don't be expecting the pace of the film to be moving at breakneck speed, as some scenes do linger on longer than welcomed. The film is split down the middle into two acts, where the first section dwelt mainly on the lies the men are constantly spinning and the budding suspicions that get quashed because nobody is going to question supposedly first hand eyewitness accounts, especially those who had lived through to tell the story, which was carefully deliberated to ensure authenticity, but in a flipped order. We get glimpses of the brutality of the massive battle, and talk about the frequency of wars during that era, but your attention will likely be on the sets both indoors and outdoors, and the costumes, all of which are intricately designed.

A major action sequence, though short, separates the two halves. Action junkies will likely lap up this sequence, which demonstrated the power of an elite warrior in the Qin army, though in stark contrast to the desires of the swordsman because of his yearn to go home and become a farmer, and one would shudder should his companion were to wield such abilities, given his conniving scheme to want to take over the city and rule over it like a lord. Some Seven Samurai potential got built up with a bandit attack, though resolution was too swift, leaving you wanting more.

The second act starts to spiral down the slippery road where the saying of paper not being able to wrap fire, with something just waiting to happen, such as the anticipated return of young POWs, as well as the growing state of confusion and suspicion amongst the women, questioning why their men have not made it back home while these two fellows managed to. It's pretty amazing how devoted to their cause the city inhabitants can be, especially when they know what really is lying ahead of them.

Fan Bingbing marquees the production being no stranger to period dramas, though this time her role is much more muted and restrained, as compared to co-stars Du Jiayi, who is the court-jester equivalent in being a tad irritating and the perennial troublemaker, and Huang Jue who had risen to the occasion and has potential to be matinee star material.

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