The Chinese March of Time continues in “The Story of Yunnan,” yet another family saga showing how to survive revolutions, rural isolation and too much aging makeup. Twist is that the heroine is Japanese-born and ends up in a part of China whose colorful folk life is rarely seen in the West. A limited international arthouse life is possible after fest rounds are over.
Like many other Beijing-blessed pix, “Yunnan” begins at the end of the Sino-Japanese War (aka World War II). Raised in occupied Manchuria, teenaged Zyuko (lovely Lu Xiuling) is left behind when her father’s regiment suddenly retreats. Captured on the Great Wall, the young woman is renamed Zhuzi and protected by a Chinese officer (Lin Jianhua), whom she eventually marries and accompanies to his remote village in central Yunnan Province. Unfortunately, the husband has some unnamed disease and doesn’t survive the harsh trek.
That leaves her in the hands of his compassionate mother and confused younger brother, Xia Lou (Pu Cunxin), who tells Zhuzi that tribal tradition makes her his wife now. She throws a fit, and it takes Lou much sucking on his bong to figure that he’s still got an inside track. After establishing herself in the village — her brief training as a nurse comes in handy with the local population, presented here as quaintly backward — she lets him stake his claim, and they have several wonderful children.
Of course, their path is not entirely smooth. Triumphant Communists threaten to throw her out of the country in 1949, and area youths turn on her during the Cultural Revolution. Still, there are no crises that a heartfelt word or a kindly cadre can’t dispel.
Pic is equally ambivalent about Zhuzi’s eventual trip to her homeland. Japan sequence is tenderly handled, with the plethora of material goods both attractive and repellent. But fact that the heroine hasn’t really gotten 40 years older becomes painfully obvious when she’s shoved up against actual oldsters in an awkward class reunion.
Helmer Zhang Nuanxing is better at capturing anthropological oddities than keeping narrative sharp, but she gets plenty from Lu Xiuling, who moves from passive damsel to hearty village elder.