Wild Grass -- Film Review

Simple, direct and affecting look at residents of a Chinese orphanage for handicapped children.

VIENNA — A bracingly unsentimental take on emotionally-charged material, Chinese-French co-production "Wild Grass" ("Ye cao") deserves at least as much international exposure as the recent Alain Resnais offbeat drama ("Les herbes folles") whose English-language title it somewhat unfortunately shares. For Chinese audiences, however, the title nods much further back — to the 1927 prose-poem collection by seminal author Lu Xun.

While it won't attain classic status, this latest non-fiction outing for sometime actress Lina Yang (after 2005's Eroticism in China) is ideal fare for festivals, and not only those dedicated to documentary material. Originally made for French TV (where it aired as Les herbes sauvages de Qingdao), the picture also has obvious small-screen appeal.

Ironically, given the Resnais coincidence, there's a strong link here with another revered French auteur, the late Eric Rohmer. Many of Rohmer's latter films were edited by the Hong Kong-born Mary Stephen, who has also worked on several well-received Chinese documentaries in recent years -- including Du Haibin's 1428 and Lixin Fan's Last Train Home.

Here Stephen, bringing the whole thing in at a very brisk 75 minutes, unobtrusively switches back and forth between two separate time frames. In 1997, the residents of Qingdao's orphanage for handicapped children are mainly of first- and second-grade age; by 2009, they're approaching adulthood. Main focus throughout is on Hongjun (no surname given), who has an artificial leg, and who is shown in the present-day footage wandering around the orphanage's rural environs, smoking and ruminating about his troubled life. He voices a decidedly ambivalent attitude to Qingdao, the former German colony better known to westerners, especially beer-drinkers, under its old name of Tsingtao.

The circumstances faced by Hongjun and his friends have clearly been very tough, sometimes horrifically so, as when one hapless passer-by is casually identified as having had had his arms chopped off by a crazed parent. But the sense of camaraderie amid the "struggle" is palpable throughout: They are "all in it together ... brought together by mistake."

Certain personalities emerge with winning vividness — most notably Gong An, a highly precocious and articulate tot who develops into a wry, energetic teenager — in an film which works as a collection of brisk scenes without ever feeling choppy. Occasional wider points are made in terms of social norms and political implications, but these come from the kids themselves rather than in the form of editorializing or analysis.

This isn't fly-on-the-wall stuff: The children engage fully with Lina and her camera, evidently finding the filmmaking process a welcome respite from the monotony of orphanage life. Facilities are pretty spartan in 1997, improving considerably a dozen years later when the residents are moved to a newer building nearby.

Yang and Stephen's no-nonsense approach allows us to sympathize with their subjects without crossing the line into mawkishness or tear-jerking kiddie-misery. And it endows the occasional more poetic touch — as when Hongjun, who describes the orphans as "twisted trees,” is shown sitting on a swing in the drizzling rain of this coastal city — with a genuine, unobtrusive grace.
Production companies: INA; Chinese Shadows; ARTE France
Director/screenwriter/producer/director of photography: Lina Yang
Editor: Mary Stephen
Sales: INA, Paris
No rating, 75 minutes