‘The Promised Land’ (‘Hui Dao Bei Ai De Mei Yi Tian’): TIFF Review

The Promised Land - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A slight but playful character study about China’s evolving youth and growing rural-urban divide.

Director He Ping (‘Warriors of Heaven and Earth’) offers up a contemporary two-hander set between Beijing and the countryside.

Scaling things down after several glossy historical Easterns and a handful of femme-driven period pieces, veteran Chinese director He Ping (Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker, Warriors of Heaven and Earth) offers up a contemporary two-hander about love, longing and his country’s ever-evolving youth in the low-key romantic dramedy, The Promised Land (Hui Dao Bei Ai De Mei Yi Tian).

Set between smog-filled Beijing and a picturesque rural town, this tale of two young lovers caught between their aspirations for a better life in the big city, and their desire to live a more humble existence in the countryside, is much too minimal in terms of plot and dramatization, relying on the charisma of stars Wang Jiajia and Zhang Yi (Mountains May Depart) to do most of the legwork. Their various meet-cutes and quiet conversations help drive what’s otherwise a minor character study that should continue its fest tour after a first stop in Toronto’s Platform competition, with theatrical possibilities in Asia.

Jumping around in both time and location, the story follows 20-something ballet dancer, Ling Ai (Wang), who settles back into her tranquil hometown, reconnecting with her widowed father (Wang Zhiwen) and opening up a dance studio for locals. But her homecoming is marred by memories of her recent life in Beijing, where she shared a crowded flat with several roommates, one of whom – the hockey coach, He Jiang (Zhang) – she slowly but surely fell in love with, building a serene, comforting relationship in a congested metropolis that’s not always welcoming to youngsters.

There’s not much of a narrative arc here, although the secret behind why Ai is now living alone creates a nominal kind of mystery – and one that’s solved extremely late in the game. The rest of the film flashbacks to the two budding lovebirds as they get to know each other in their collective living quarters, resulting in several rom-com style sequences (and perhaps a nod to Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night) where they communicate across the thin wall separating their adjacent rooms.

Throughout those scenes, He seems to be saying that, in such a massive city like Beijing, the only way to find real solace is in the arms of another, while out in the country it’s possible for Ai to achieve peace by herself – even if such peace is underscored by a certain melancholy. Yet without a strong script to shape the drama, one has to read between the lines to appreciate the filmmaker’s acute observations, which are often relayed through gestures and dialogue improvised by the two stars.

Both actors are easy to watch in roles more physical than psychological, with Wang stretching, dancing, and yoga-ing her time away in her tiny Beijing bedroom, while Zhang restlessly waits for her next door. Wang (He’s Wheat) is also good as a father who wants the best for his daughter, but has a hard time saying it.

Tech credits are highlighted by cinematographer Shao Dan’s colorful lensing, which contrasts the bustling grays of the big city with the lush greens of the countryside, leaving us to wonder which of those two is indeed the promised land of the title.

Production companies: Classics Media Co. Ltd/Beijing Junfei Century Culture Media Co. Ltd
Cast: Wang Jiajia, Zhang Yi, Wang Zhiwen
Director, screenwriter: He Ping
Producers: He Ping, Zhao Hongliang
Executive producer: Barbara Robinso
Director of photography: Shao Dan
Production designer: Gao Yiguang
Editors: He Ping, Huang Bojun
Sales agent: Turbo Films

No rating, 102 minutes