BERLIN -- With a simple, compelling and direct story in "Tuya's Marriage," Wang Quan'an makes eloquent points about the vanishing life of the Mongolian herdsman. Actually, make that herdswoman, since the fiercely determined heroine of this film is a true force of nature.
This character would take over any movie -- a romantic comedy set in Paris or a heated drama in New York. With a staunch character driving their movie, Wang and his co-writer, veteran scenarist Lu Wei ("Farewell My Concubine"), can take the time to sharply observe a dying lifestyle in a forbidding desert locale not far, according to Wang, from where his own mother was born.
"Tuya's Marriage" certainly has the emotional oomph to move off the festival circuit into European, and possibly even North American, art houses. Wang is working here with his regular lead actress, Yu Nan, whose beauty radiates in every scene despite being bundled in thick coats with a red scarf obscuring half her head. She just has one of those amazing faces that contains multitudes.
Her character, Tuya, has borne two children, and since her husband became disabled digging a waterless well, all household chores fall to her. This runs from herding a hundred sheep to making supper. She is exhausted though and then she hurts her back.
So she and her husband Bater (Bater) come to a pragmatic decision. They will divorce so Tuya, who is still young and pretty, can marry a man to take care of her and the children. Tuya makes one demand: Her ex-husband is part of the package.
In scenes with a wonderful sense of the comic, suitors come by horse and motorbike to negotiate a marriage. Everyone balks at Tuya's one proviso. A wealthy classmate (Peng Hongxiang) from 17 years before almost succeeds in getting Tuya to agree to put Bater into a nursing home. Bater, however, gets drunk and slashes his wrist. In the film's most gripping scene, she charges into Bater's hospital room and threatens -- for her and her sons -- to join him in suicide. She makes her point: No one in this family will take the easy way out by dying!
The solution is clearly right under Tuya's nose -- Sen'ge (Sen'ge), a fellow herdsman with a crush on Tuya, an almost comical ability to fail at any enterprise and a fearsome, philandering wife (who, since she is never seen, is a dominating force of evil throughout the movie). The route to this foreseen resolution is neither predictable nor easy, though. Indeed, the film ends on a very tentative note. For Mongolian desert dwellers, the filmmaker seems to be saying, even solutions aren't really solutions.
Yu is an experienced and most talented actress. But the real surprise here is how well the non-pros -- Bater, a Mongolian herdsman, and Sen'ge, an equestrian -- perform. There's no telling how many takes were necessary to draw out these performances. Whatever the case, the scenes among these three are all strong, and the two men make vivid and memorable characters.
The political backdrop to this story, which is never verbalized, is that heavy industrialization has drained much of the water table necessary to support traditional Mongolian herdsmen. The film's images thus capture a culture in its death throes.
German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier catches the glories of the vast grasslands that no doubt the characters themselves never notice. Traditional music -- the movie's only musical credit is for a Mongolian Alashan Singing Chorus -- makes a major contribution. Wang's editing is leisurely, but at 95 minutes the length feels just about right.
Tuya's Marriage (Tu Ya De Hun Shi)
Maxyeeculture Industry in association with Xi'an Motion Picture Co.
Director-editor: Wang Quan'an
Writers: Lu Wei, Wang Quan'an
Producer: Yan Jugang
Executive producers: Yuan Hanyuan, Wang Le
Director of photography: Lutz Reitemeier
Production designer: Wei Tao
Costume designer: Lu Yi
Tuya: Yu Nan
Baolier: Peng Hongxiang
No MPAA rating, running time 95 minutes.