A feisty feminist spirit serviceably cloaks the whiff of old-school stagnancy surrounding “The Story of Xinghua,” an allegorical meller about greed and blind opportunism in modern rural China that remains absorbing despite its occasional prosaic obviousness. Helmer Yin Li’s background in kidpix informs his widely accessible storytelling style, making this a likely candidate for programming in upscale international webs.
The upsurge in free enterprise under the liberalization gradually reshaping China’s economy is intriguingly manifested here: Crooked grocer Wanglai (Zhang Guoli) runs a profitable sideline hawking souvenir stones lifted from the stretch of the Great Wall running through his mountain village. He is obsessed with the legend of a golden treasure said to be buried under the once-strategic tower that dominates the area. At the opposite extreme is Fulin (Tian Shaojun), a sensitive, educated neighbor scraping for spiritual rewards with his plantation of saplings.
Unable to bear him a son even after being plied with fertility medicine, Wanglai’s 5,000-yuan bride, Xinghua (Chen Kaige regular Jiang Wenli), is abused, beaten and cheated on. She finds a soul mate in Fulin, who coyly confesses his attraction by commenting on the beauty of apricot blossoms (also the meaning of her name).
More coyness follows when they take shelter from a rainstorm, and the action cuts from a torrid clinch to their twin pitchforks thrust into a crop-bearing field. Having swiftly fallen pregnant, Xinghua proposes divorcing Wanglai for Fulin, but he reacts nervously, unveiling ethics only marginally less ruled by tradition than her husband’s.
Learning of the fling, Wanglai all but destroys Fulin’s plantation and batters him into submission before heading home to do the same to Xinghua. But she turns the tables on him, using proof of his sterility as her sword, although he’s delirious at the thought of an heir and unconcerned about its parentage.
Though it’s short on subtlety, the saga’s sweeping emotional strokes and broad universality offer effortless enjoyment. Jiang turns in a forceful, not too showy performance, ably flanked by her contrasting but equally unworthy bed mates. Li Jianguo’s unerringly efficient widescreen lensing doesn’t quite sport the sumptuousness of many other Chinese dramas but still serves up enough majestic vistas to satisfy landscape fanciers.