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A goofy ostrich farmer indebted to the local mob agrees to take care of a kidnapped boy until Dad coughs up the ransom in The Road Not Taken, Tang Gaopeng’s drawn-out but intermittently amusing debut feature. The cast is charismatic enough to cover for an unconvincing storyline whose wacky fun may appeal most to Chinese audiences. In its best moments, this offbeat road movie has a sly, dry humor and an ability to shift between different registers, allowing the predominant comedy to end on a melancholy but satisfying note of self-sacrifice. It won best film kudos in the Shanghai Film Festival’s hotly contested Asian New Talent Awards.
Wang Xuebing, who headlined in The Pluto Moment as an ill-starred indie filmmaker and appeared in a supporting role in Black Coal, Thin Ice, is the bumbling ostrich farmer Yong. With his perpetually tousled hair and unbuttoned shirt, he is equal parts irritating and endearing. He has gone into debt to buy the bird farm in a last-ditch effort to win back his ex-wife, which is touching enough, but watching him clumsily chase a huge ostrich around the desert, it’s clear it’s a losing proposition.
Soon the violent “Brother 5” shows up demanding Yong repay his loan; our hero not only fails to pay up, but he has the chutzpah to ask for more money. Instead, he is given a small boy to shelter on his farm. In typical Yong style, he asks no questions but doesn’t take the job very seriously, either. When he impulsively rushes off to see his ex, he is far down the highway before he remembers the tyke he left behind. After more funny business, kidnapper and victim take off together to find the wife.
In any other film this would be a cue for bonding, but curiously the story doesn’t really go down that road. Cute as the boy is, he remains sullenly silent for the first half of the film. He wins sympathy points, however, when he steals Yong’s truck and weaves down the road in a nicely modulated scene that has the audience holding its breath.
This tall tale is set in China’s Gobi desert, where big trucks and long rigs ceaselessly cross endless plains between far-flung cities. It’s an unloving world of lonely transients who have learned to defensively fend for themselves, one where the unusually open-hearted Yong stands out like a sore thumb. Everything he does speaks of his humanity, though maybe not in the usual terms. For example, he’s so obsessed with his divorced wife that he ignores the pathetic child beside him.
Another strongly drawn character who crosses their path is a tough-as-nails woman trucker, played by rising star Ma Yili (the babysitter in Lost, Found). One expects her to turn into a love interest; instead Yong keeps his distance, while the film offers some privileged glimpses into her hard life. For a brief moment, the trio forms a family group for a photo, but it’s one of the many roads not taken.
The gangsters turn mean in the last part of the film and the uncertain storyline settles into a classic chase, letting logic evaporate in the desert heat. Only in the concluding sequence does Yong finally discover the truth about his fantasies and take responsibility for something. Turning his bumbling brashness into a sort of irresponsible heroism, Wang Xuebing manages to have it both ways.
Guo Daming’s cinematography emphasizes the rigors of the landscape bathed in harsh light. No music softens the dreadful barrenness of these exceedingly empty spaces.
Production company: VShine Brothers Entertainment
Cast: Wang Xuebing, Ma Yili, Zhu Gengyou
Director: Tang Gaopeng
Screenwriter: Yue Xiaojun
Producer: Sun Wei
Director of photography: Guo Daming
Production designers: Qin Weili, Fan Yongzhong, Gong Kaijun
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Music: Chen Hongli
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Asian New Talent competition)
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