White Deer Plain: Berlin Film Festival Review

"White Deer Plain"
Stunning visuals and convincing performances in an epic Chinese peasant tale don’t outweigh narrative limitation.

Wang Quan'an directs a film centered around a seductive woman who comes between two families feuding over land, set in 20th century China.

Returning to Berlin competition after his Mongolian drama Tuya’s Marriage won the Golden Bear in 2007, Chinese director Wang Quan’an ambitiously brings Chen Zhongshi’s sweeping 1993 historical novel White Deer Plain, an epic tale of two peasant families, to the big screen. Unfortunately, this impressively lensed and scaled work flounders for focus, and not even its unusually explicit sex scenes (for China, not for the West) and earthy language can rescue the three-hour opus from ennui. Tracing the Bai and the Lu families from 1910 to 1938, the film presents historical and personal horrors in fleeting, tableaux-like scenes of little emotional impact. Although the film’s stunning look, coupled with the director’s reputation, may swing limited release in some territories, this is an art film even for Chinese viewers.

It poses additional obstacles to Westerners who will be hard-pressed to follow the multiple characters fading in and out of the tale and the passing references to 20th century Chinese history. The audience’s one entry point is the character of Xiao’e, a beautiful, bold and capricious young woman who joins peasant society as an unwelcome outsider; yet even here, the focus is blurred when it should be steady. While his lusty peasants recall Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, writer-director Quan’an lacks the narrative skill here to pull off such a long and complex story.

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The film opens on a vast plain of luscious wheat being harvested while three little boys, who will grow up over the course of the story, play mischievously. In school, the high moral standards of their ancient culture are drilled into them. Later in the film, the destruction of the ancestral temple of White Deer Plain will serve as a metaphor for the degradation of Chinese society as a whole.

The brief first scenes are the last happy idyll before tragedy follows on the heels of tragedy. It begins when news reaches Jiaxuan, the head of the clan (played by the dignified Zhang Fengyi of Red Cliff and Farewell, My Concubine) that the Emperor has fallen and chaos reigns in the city. Caught in the struggle between Communists and Nationalists, the poor, hungry, overtaxed farmers are at the mercy of ever-changing authorities who stage public beatings, beheadings and executions.

In this uncertain political climate, Heiwa (Duan Yihong), the son of Jiaxuan’s loyal servant Lu San, goes to work for the rich old land-owner Master Guo. His youthful body and rebellious attitude attract the attention of Guo’s sexually frustrated youngest wife, Tian Xiao’e (Zhang Yuqi.) Inviting the harvester into her bed, she is so careless in keeping their affair a secret that the lovers are discovered, publicly beaten and sent away in disgrace.

Back home on White Deer Plain, the tradition-bound Jiaxuan denies the couple permission to marry in the ancestral temple. Heiwa and Xiao’e are forced to live as outcasts in a precarious cave dwelling, until Heiwa’s anger at the system finds a violent outlet in politics and the Communist party.

The point of view changes an hour into the film as Xiao’e takes center stage. Young Yuqi has the riveting beauty of a Wong Kar-wai heroine and here, too, her sexual mores are constantly under scrutiny as she runs through an impressive series of men, mostly tragically Jiaxuan’s own son (Cheng Taisheng). Victim, devil or just a woman in love? Each man feels entitled to his own opinion, leaving the question uneasily open. Though visuals are tame by Western standards and nudity is quite limited, the language used in the seduction and rape scenes leaves little to the imagination in terms of exotic sexual practices. But this fits in with the earthy, at times humorous, dialogue used by the peasants.

The final part of the film once again shifts point of view to follow the characters as they scatter and return to White Deer Plain, up to another tragic moment in Chinese history, the war with Japan begun in 1937.

Though the whole cast is strong and efficient throughout and though there’s no shortage of action, the film is oddly devoid of emotional involvement. It seems to lack the screen time for narrative buildup, which a longer miniseries, for example, might have provided. As stirring as the actors are the magnificent landscapes of the vast rolling plain covered with a sea of wheat, photographed at sunrise and sunset and across the seasons by the director’s regular cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Zhang Fengyi, Zhang Yuqi, Wu Gang, Duan Yihong, Cheng Taisheng, Liu Wei, Guo Tao
Production company: Bai Lu Yuan Film Company in association with Lightshades Film Productions, Xi’an Movie and Television Production, Western Film Group Corporation
Director: Wang Quan'an
Screenwriter: Wang Quan'an, based on a novel by Chen Zhongshi
Producer: Zhang Xiaoke
Executive producers: Sun Yi’an, Ma Rui, Xu Jianxuan, Xu Junqian
Director of photography: Lutz Reitemeier
Production design: Huo Tingxiao
Editor: Wang Quan’an
Music: Zhao Jiping
Sales: Distribution Workshop (H.K.)
No rating, 178 minutes