“Distant Trampling of Horses” revisits the historic 1935 Long March by Chinese communists in disenchanted terms. Arduousness, injustice, prolonged hardship and human loss are intimately depicted through the struggle of an eight-woman detachment roaming the icy, inhospitable highlands along the Tibetan border.
Debut feature by femme helmer Liu Miaomiao (youngest of the “Fifth Generation” gang fronted by Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou) was made in 1987 but is only now being shown outside China. By turns dolefully expressive, quietly acerbic and frustratingly remote, this challenging pic should notch up a crowded calendar of festival and Asian film week dates on the strength of its curio value and heavily censored history alone.
After years of refusals to Western programmers, Chinese authorities OK’d the Turin screening following this fall’s Venice fest showing of Liu’s third feature , “Chatterbox.” But Liu still had to organize documentation, translation and print shipment herself.
Pic’s starting point is a power conflict between communist Liberation Army chiefs, prompting a faction to break away from the march in an abortive attempt to set up bases on the border between Tibet and Sichuan province. Sent out from the dissident regiment on a misguided mission, a small women’s platoon, low on everything except revolutionary ideals, finds itself isolated.
Tracking their dogged efforts to rejoin the troops, Liu ably conveys conditions of extreme discomfort, borderline starvation and physical danger. But her real focus — and the pic’s most persuasive element — is examining events via their effect on the women.
She sketches a steely revolutionary determination often born less of informed political conviction than as a way out of lifelong poverty and servitude.
The film’s intended tone is sometimes baffling. In one scene, the malnourished platoon (diminished by two deaths) breaks into a rousing Party anthem which sends them striding uphill like cheery Von Trapp children. Elsewhere, irony is clearer, as in a closing v.o. hinting that the most enduring memory of the Long March is the sound of 10,000 soldiers coughing in unison.
Though it doesn’t quite have the crystalline communicative power of some of her classmates’ early work, Liu’s pic stands as a confidently executed, grand-scale feature bow that warrants attention in surveys of quality Chinese cinema. Original title means “The Broken Sound of Horses’ Hooves.”