Desert Dreams

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San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

SAN FRANCISCO -- The dialogue is as sparse as the solitary, weathered trees of the Mongolian steppe in "Desert Dream," a measured, contemplative drama from Chinese writer-director Zhang Lu. Following a recent North American premiere here, Zhang's film will continue to find its warmest reception at international fests, with some ancillary prospects on DVD.

Hungai (Osor Bat-Ulzii) lives out on the remote grasslands with his wife and daughter, herding sheep and attempting to stem the infringing desert by planting tree saplings, a marginal undertaking that his wife dryly disparages.

When his daughter's deteriorating medical condition forces his wife to take the girl to the city for treatment, Hungai remains behind. Their departure is quickly followed by the arrival of Soonhee (Suh Jung) and her young son Changho (Shin Dongho), refugees fleeing North Korea on foot. Hungai offers them shelter in his yurt and their overnight stay soon stretches into days and then weeks during his family's extended absence.

Although they speak no common language, Soonhee and Changho willingly assist Hungai with his reforestation efforts and livestock tending, as they gradually form a familial bond. Various passersby, including a slave trader and an amorous soldier, take a predatory interest in the Koreans, but Hungai manages to ensure their safety until he's summoned away to care for his daughter.

Zhang's filmmaking style is almost as stripped-down as the storyline, featuring single-camera takes, predominantly natural lighting and unaffected performances that are all well-suited to the straightforward narrative and dramatic outdoor settings.

Although docmentary-like in execution, Zhang's film reveals scant detail about his characters or their situations, ultimately electing ambiguity over clarity in the final scenes. While slice-of-life might suffice for docus, viewers may expect rather more revelation from this lengthy, occasionally engrossing film.

DESERT DREAM
Rezo Films International
A G21M/Arizona Films production
Sales Agent: Rezo Films International (international sales)
Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Zhang Lu
Producers: Park Jin-weon, Guillaume de Seille
Executive producers: Yang Hwaseok, Yang Youngchul
Director of photography: Kim Sungtae
Production designer: Kim Sung-kyo
Editor: Kim Hyungjoo
Cast:
Hungai: Osor Bat-Ulzii
Choi Soonhee: Suh Jung
Changho: Shin Dongho
Running time -- 123 minutes
No MPAA rating
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