'On the Rim of the Sky' ('Ming Tian Hui Geng Hao'): Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno
Thoughtful, observant piece chronicling two years of explosive human drama served up in under two hours.

Engineer-turned-filmmaker Xu Hongjie charts the escalating clashes between two teachers of different backgrounds in a far-flung village in western China.

Imagine a duel in a Chinese village. In one corner, a flabby, unrefined villager hellbent on securing his job, his standing and his newly built house; in the other, a tall, urbane university graduate gushing with revolutionary idealism as he aspires to bring the peasantry into modernity. Odds are all stacked against the former to win empathy from the observer, just as it's difficult for the latter to lose his moral high ground.

Set in a far-flung mountaintop outpost in southwestern China, Xu Hongjie's On the Rim of the Sky offers trouble not just in paradise but also in the more banal, less melodramatic settings of everyday life. Pitching a stubborn old-style toiler with a self-important dreamer as the pair wrestle for control over a village school, Xu — a trained engineer who went on to study filmmaking in Germany — sides with neither and points out the flaws in both unwilling to move for fear of peril and those who peril others by moving too fast.

Making its bow at the Locarno festival's Critics' Week program on Aug. 8, the documentary's first five minutes is deceptive. Comprising extremely picturesque imagery of Gulu — a tiny hamlet separated from the world by its location atop sheer cliffs — and happy children playing, laughing and singing the national anthem at morning assembly, On the Rim of the Sky begins as if it's a soft, cuddly piece about innocuous, rural lives. This angle holds as Shen Qijun — that's the village-bred teacher — enters the picture: He talks about his meager salary (equivalent to $100 a month) and he's shown teaching children how to read and write.

Enter Bao Tangtao, a graduate from cosmopolitan Wuhan who volunteered to teach at Gulu because of his love for the "small, graceful utopia" of a village, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde's saying about how when one lies in the gutter, he's actually looking at the stars. All good intentions, mind, but the way he says — or croons, to be exact — "What a Wonderful World," hints that something is obviously off about him.

Xu captures vividly the abundant contradictions in these two protagonists. Shen talks about the well-being of his village, but is obviously as concerned about his own interests and pride. Bao, meanwhile, is apparently also treating his rustic service as just part of his attempt to emulate Che Guevara before he returns to middle-class security in the big city; he is basically unable to counter the paradox of adoring the "purity" of the children — and then introducing them to television and all its trashy programs.

Filmed over two years — with a small coda shot another two years after that — the relationship between Shen and Bao spirals from civility to muted dislike to outright hostility. Xu and his team of cinematographers excel in capturing the essential moments that reveal these changes and the small details and gestures that reveal the fractures between these two men — and the villagers and volunteers backing one or the other. Rainer Negrelli and Xu's editing also deserves mention for making the documentary a relentless surge toward high drama.

The film's Chinese title translates to "It will be better tomorrow"; it's perhaps a bit ambivalent whom this applies to, whether it's the do-gooder off to play hero in another land or the man who refuses to change and gets washed away for better or worse. It's an irony that Xu seems to be at pains to point out — but with genuine empathy rather than a filmmaker's eye searching for some cultural exotica.

An exploration of the ground-level clashes in flawed psyches in China today, On the Rim of the Sky is 2014's answer to Please Vote for Me, the 2007 award-winning documentary about how middle-class, 8-year-old only children will go to extremes to get elected class monitor. Xu's documentary deserves whatever earthly berths in the festival circuit it can find.

Director-producer: Xu Hongjie
Cinematographers: Mincheol Wang, Xu Hongjie, Cheng Bin, Cheng Jingbo
Editors: Rainer Nigrelli, Xu Hongjie
Music: Frank Schreiber

In Mandarin

No rating, 102 minutes