‘Far Away Xilingol’: Shanghai Review

Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival
Irritatingly conventional but with spectacular vistas and some moving moments.

The romance-adventure offers a nostalgic look back at the Cultural Revolution.

If director Gao Feng’s prize-winning TV film Camel Caravan was hailed as a Western with camels, Far Away Xilingol echoes the homespun frontier values one would expect to see in a little house on the prairie.

Only here the grasslands are the infinite steppes of China’s Inner Mongolia, and the settlers are ethnic Mongols who still are following their ancestors’ way of life in 1973. Their happy co-existence with nature and the animal kingdom is underlined. With several shocker scenes of wolves attacking penned sheep (animal rights alert), comparisons to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $40 million Wolf Totem spring to mind, but Gao’s film is more of a modestly budgeted romance-adventure.

Its nostalgic glossing-over of the Cultural Revolution and the purges that hit the area hard in the 1960s and 1970s contribute to its old-fashioned look and feel, earmarking it primarily for local consumption.

The wistful, way-we-were screenplay by Wang Xiping and Ran Jianan hinges on the cultural and social differences between a group of educated kids mobilized to work on the steppes and their local Mongol hosts. The six city slickers have been sent far from home and school to work shoulder to shoulder with locals, theoretically to defend China’s northern border. A more likely story is that they’ve been sent to the hinterlands for reeducation (though the script never uses the word). From the looks of them, one would say they were on holiday. The girls joyously learn to gallop horses across the steppes, while the boys humorously struggle to adapt to local cuisine. 

The hero of the tale is Guo (the convincing Shi Feida), a student and part-time poet who wears glasses and retches when he is forced to eat meat, the dietary staple. He attracts the sympathy of sweet local girl Jiva, though his heart is elsewhere. To help him out, she kindly demonstrates how to shear a living sheepskin with a knife, in another scene that raises animal rights questions.

Setting aside his vegetarian and intellectual tendencies at last, Guo throws himself into farm work. But, in another nod to Annaud, he creates havoc when he secretly shelters a wolf cub. Later he takes part in a wolf patrol that illustrates the Mongolian philosophy of killing just the right number of animals to survive, but no more, so as "not to offend the Sky Father."

In a parallel love story, the young alpha male of the Mongol community entertains some hidden feelings for the prettiest Chinese girl. All the inter-ethnic relationships are idealistic rather than believable, though the delicate direction hits the tear ducts in the last act, when decisions have to be made. A coda set in the present day, when big jeeps rove the plains and Guo’s memories resurface, is genuinely moving.

Ge Ritu's cinematography emphasizes the glorious summer panoramas, obscured in winter by raging ice storms. Local music is sparingly used, until a Mongol chorus entertains Beijing theater patrons in the closing scenes.

Production company: Inner Mongolia Film Group Co.
Cast: 
Shi Feida, Jin Kena, Bao Qinghai, Liu Han
Director-producer: Gao Feng
Screenwriters:
Wang Xiping, Ran Jianan
Director of photography: Ge Ritu
Editor: Leng Fengwen
No rating, 100 minutes

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