"Life" (screening tonight only as part of the Nuart's Chinese Film Festival) is a dangerously pretentious title for any movie, but Wu Tianming's epic tale has a disarming simplicity. Set in the rugged Shaanxi Province, it's a heart-tugging love story with timeless appeal, much local color and strong contemporary political implications.
Its handsome hero (Xhou Lijiang) has lost his teaching position to another young man whose father has political clout, and he bitterly returns to helping his elderly father till the hard soil. Yet his downfall and its cruel loss of face gives a lovely neighbor girl (Wu Yufang) the confidence to dare to declare her love for him. He's genuinely touched but is above all concerned with maneuvering an escape to the city.
Director Wu Tianming and writer Lu Yao comment on the lingering corruption of the Cultural Revolution both in its hero's unjust fate and his devious attempt to overcome it, yet they do not judge, presenting Xhou as a classic instance of an ambitious man not appreciating a woman's selfless love until it's too late. Xhou is persuasive in an often unsympathetic role, and Wu Yufang has the radiantly innocent courage of Olivia De Havilland's Melanie in "Gone With the Wind." There's a great "Stella Dallas"-like moment when Wu, who's gone to visit Xhou in the city, realizes that Xhou is bored with her talk of a pig and its new litter. Paired with "Life," which is China's official entry into this year's Oscar sweepstakes, is a revival of Wu Tianming's equally fine "River Without Buoys," a journey into the oppressive decade of the Cultural Revolution which unfolds as three men travel by raft down a river in Xi'an.