'River Road': Tokyo Review

River Road
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
A gripping adventure yarn

A road movie featuring two Chinese boys on camel-back crossing desertified prairies in search of their father

Making Mia Wasikowska look like an amateur on her trek across Australia with four camels in Tracks, two small but nature-savvy brothers make a dangerous journey on camelback across China’s remote Northwestern deserts in the original, accomplished River Road (Jia zai shui cao feng mao di di fang). Poised between human drama, adventure tale and environmental exposé, this fourth feature by writer-director Li Ruijun is a plaintive lament for the Yugur herdsmen’s traditional way of life, which is dying out due to natural and man-made climate change. The hook of the two little boys, who are warring with each other throughout their trip, is a powerful way in to what otherwise might have been a (literally) dry documentary. Its bow in Tokyo competition should open a well-spring of festivals, particularly children's meets.

Through the eyes of plucky little Adikeer (Tang Long), who looks nine-ish, and his marginally older sibling Bartel (Guo Songtao), writer-director Li is able to show the heart-breaking desertification of the ancient Yugur grazing lands as a backdrop to the drama. Their parents have driven their sheep to distant pastures, leaving Adikeer in a sort of boarding school in town and Bartel with his aged grandfather. Their father promises to come pick them up for summer break, but when the grandfather dies and Dad doesn’t show up, the boys set out to join him on their two-humped Bactrian camels. Adikeer, the brighter light and bolder spirit, vaguely remembers the way and his father’s instructions to follow the river, because the herd can never be far from water.  But the river has dried up, possibly due to concrete drains built into its bed, and the wells are dry, too.

The set-up requires a certain amount of exposition and gets the film off to a slow start. This means the tale only becomes gripping when the journey begins, and the antagonism between the boys charges it with additional drama. Bartel, who feels abandoned by his parents because they sent him to live with grandpa, has a huge chip on his shoulder and sabotages the trip in various ways. For example, he drinks all their water, while Adikeer, a miniature herdsman in the making, knows they must be frugal, and stop to rest and travel after sundown.

Following a dried-up river bed the size of the Mississippi, the little travelers stumble onto ghost towns and abandoned caves with paintings from the Han dynasty. The most magical scene takes place inside an ancient monastery carved into a rocky mountainside. It is closing down for lack of water and visitors, and the lamas are heading back to town. This simple scene poignantly underlines how the end of the ancient Yugur civilization is at hand. The closing scene slams the door the shut.

Tang and Guo are expertly directed in the main roles without sentimentality, which makes their occasional tears all the more touching. Animals play an important role, and the huge camels have expressive faces of their own, along with their own dramas. Dotted with plaintive folk songs, the haunting background score is by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian, who has worked with Kiarostami and Farhadi.

Production companies: Laurel Films, Heaven Pictures
Cast:Tang Long, Guo Songtao
Director, screenwriter: Li Ruijun
Producers: Yang Cheng, Geng Xiaonan, Li Ruijun
Executive producer: Fang Li
Director of photography: Liu Yonghong
Editor: Li Ruijun
Music: Peyman Yazdanian

No rating, 103 minutes