‘De Lan’: Shanghai Review

Delan Still 1 H 2016
Shanghai Film Festival
Beautiful performances and a searingly simple story touch the heartstrings.

A young loan officer is sent to the high mountains in a Chinese coming-of-age drama directed by Liu Jie.

De Lan is the name of a beautiful, intense mountain woman with whom the green protagonist falls deeply in love. Though they exchange only a few words, in scene after scene hidden feelings and motivations are revealed, with all their power to wound. That’s about all that goes on in De Lan, a splendid example of miniaturist Chinese cinema whose small scale in no way limits its emotional reach. The actors are key-perfect and the boy, played by Dong Zi-jian (Mountains May Depart), communicates the timeless, universal despair of youth coming face to face with reality. Its bow in competition at the Shanghai International Film Festival should usher in a carnet of festival dates for the film and its director, Liu Jie.

The time is 1984, and the place is the remote outback of China. Once again Liu returns to Yunnan province, the setting of his festival globetrotters Courthouse on Horseback and Deep in the Clouds, populated by China’s ethnic minorities. In a gray little town, young Wang (Dong) waits despondently for his father to return. He has been missing for three months, since venturing into the surrounding mountains. He was a loan officer for the local co-op, practically the sole banker in that remote area. Now young Wang is offered the job. The catch is that he must assume his father’s uncollected debts, which will take him 10 years of hard work to repay.

He accepts.

Wang is told to escort a girl back to her village. De Lan (De Ji) is familiar with the treacherous mountain path and will help him journey safely, but he shouldn’t give her food, or she will run away. It’s the first indication of the distrustful attitude of the Han Chinese, to which Wang belongs, towards the non-Han minority living in the mountains. Brashly overconfident and a bit hard-hearted, Wang keeps his rations to himself, but during the multiday journey on foot, he develops respect for De Lan. Since dialogue is rarer than palm trees in the mountains, their relationship remains quite formal. All Wang knows is that she, too, is looking for a missing relative and has taken out a large loan to find him.

When they reach the village, Wang awkwardly attempts to collect old debts, but it’s hopeless. Harvest time is far away and the villagers have no cash. Unlike his father, he has no people skills and the locals take an instant dislike to him. Wang has no choice but to stay in De Lan’s house with her family, an old blind lady and her lame son. He has no idea of the girl’s relationship to them, or the reason for her seeming sexual availability. Every discovery is a new pang of pain for the youth and his first love.

If some of Liu’s earlier films verged on being ethnographic documentaries about China’s minorities, here the simple mountain farmers and passing traders are the mainstay, offering a haven of emotional warmth to the hero, who was raised by his father and now has no anchor in the world. Compared to the ironclad rules of money and repayment in Wang’s world, they live for the day, eating and boozing whenever life offers them the chance. The celebration scene around a campfire shows Wang’s liberation as he finally throws his hat in with these simple, spontaneous folk.

With his pregnant silences and sudden declarations, Dong creates an original character who can feel spell-bindingly true. His romance with De Lan will not run a smooth course, for he is not able to fully understand what she’s all about until the final scenes leave him speechless. Still, the tenderness of his feelings bring him to manhood, while his newfound determination makes him an admirable young hero.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival (competition)
Production company: CCTV-6
: Dong Zi-jian, De Ji, Renqing Dunzhu
Director: Liu Jie
Screenwriter: Gong Mu
Producers: Liu Jie, Wang Xu-dong, Xiong Yan, Tang Ke, Kang Jian, Cao Yin, Tan Li-geng
Director of photography: Florian J. M. Zinke
Editors: William Chang, Ching-Song Liao, Gao Shan
Music: Lin Qiang

Not rated, 90 minutes