The Red Awn

Bottom Line: Traditional father-and-son yarn told with refinement and heart.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- "The Red Awn" may be a debut feature, but it stands out among other works by younger newbies in Pusan International Film Festival's New Currents competition. A story with the elemental simplicity of a fable or biblical allegory, it is about the return of a prodigal father, and his efforts to reconcile with his wounded and resentful son. Although "The Red Awn" does not break any new ground in style or theme, it demonstrates the maturity of a veteran whether in scriptwriting, character development or overall direction.

This is not surprising as the director, Cai Shangjun, penned the scripts for some of the most applauded works in recent Chinese cinema -- Zhang Yang's "Shower" and "Sunflower." With Cai's established reputation in the industry, and his casting of actors who starred in big festival films, the film has a good chance for limited theatrical release abroad, in addition to festivals looking for an alternative to gritty, experimental indie films. The naturalistic, engaging performance of leading role Yao Anlian of "Shanghai Dreams" is the film's biggest asset.

The film begins with an ironic, almost ludicrous premise. Song Hai (Yao Anlian), a man in his 50s, returns to his hometown to reclaim his house, and is told that he is officially dead -- according to the local bureaucratic ministry. During Song's five-year absence, his wife has died, and his son Yongtao canceled his residence registry. The rest of the film follows Song's sincere and sometimes heart-tugging efforts to resuscitate his fatherly image in Yongtao's mind.

Yongtao (Lu Yukai of "Peacock"), who had to fend for himself like an orphan since his early teens, is practically silent during most of the film. On occasions, he shows murderous intent. The relationship between these estranged men unfolds against the realistic backdrop of a harvesting trip. The Chinese title, hong Se Kang Bai En, literally means "Red Combine Harvester." During fall, thousands of Chinese roving workers travel alone or in groups offering to help small farmers cut their crops. Song Hai and his friend Shangge rent a combine harvester and comb the northern countryside in search of such jobs, taking Yongtao along with them.

Developed as a kind of road movie, the film's high points take place along the sweeping plains of golden wheat fields captured with fine cinematography. The conflicts and tugs-of-war between Song Hai and Yong are interlaced with sobering reflections on social realities -- the desperate competition for jobs among drifting workers, tragic life of a peasant woman who was kidnapped by human traffickers.

Consciously withholding from sentimentality or easy resolution of differences, the film is poignant rather than heartwarming, but worldly without being cynical. The son's grievances and the father's almost pathetic attempts to win his son's love, as well as his hardships in the city are all given a balanced account.

Still working within the traditional framework of these kinds of father-and-son films, Cai however throws in little surprises that lift the story out of predicable melodrama. Song Hai is seen calling a woman and asking after her child intermittently, but the audience should not jump to conclusions. The father-son relationship also does not develop along conventional lines of conflict, understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead, it retains a considerable degree of ambivalence throughout, with an ending that returns full circle to suggest that after all, Yong Tao is a chip off the old block.

THE RED AWN
Xiudong Hao Ye Investment & Consulting Ltd./Beijing Wushengxing Consulting Co. Ltd./Beijing Wanji Communications & Productions Co. Ltd.
Credits:
Director/executive producer: Cai Shangjun
Screenwriters: Gu Xiaobai, Cai Shangjun, Feng Rui
Producer: Li Xudong
Directors of photography: Li Chengyu, Chen Hao
Production designer: Zhang Dajun
Music: Dong Wei
Co-producers: Wang Shunsheng, Chen Weidong
Costume designer: Zhen Wen
Editor: Zhou Ying
Cast:
Song Hai: Yao Anlian
Song Yongtao: Lu Yulai
Shangge: Shi Junhui
Guizhou woman: Wang Hong
Tanghua: Fan Jiang

Running time -- 101 minutes
No MPAA rating
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