Spectacularly lensed, but deficient in most other aspects, “Red River Valley” is an exotic costumer set in turn-of-the-century Tibet with enough political baggage to overload an army of Sherpas. Championing Chinese-Tibetan solidarity in the face of British imperialist incursions, the movie is essentially a companion piece to (though much less even-handed than) Xie Jin’s “The Opium War” in its China-stands-up messaging on the eve of the Hong Kong hand-over, as well as an early riposte to the West’s upcoming Tibet movies, Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Seven Years in Tibet.” Pic has been doing good business locally but won’t get much of a welcome beyond Chinese borders, although it is being recut for possible export.
Yarn starts in 1900 with a Chinese virgin, Xue’er (Ying Zhen), escaping a human-and-animal sacrifice by a churning river and somehow ending up in Tibet, where she’s taken in by kindly locals. Meanwhile, a couple of Brit explorers — tough Scotsman Ronson (Nicolas Love) and English interpreter Jones (Paul Neumann) — enter the territory and are almost executed before being saved by hunky Tibetan horseman Gesang (Shao Bing).
Jones stays on for a while after Ronson returns home, and falls for both the place and the local headman’s regal daughter, Danzhu (Ning Jing). Danzhu, however, has her sights on Gesang, who unfortunately only has eyes for Xue’er. Things turn nasty when Ronson, having decided Tibet needs the British Empire to prosper, returns with heavily armed troops and calmly massacres 1,500 locals, to the chagrin of the liberal Jones and the heroic death of most of the cast.
Though the movie curiously was not shot in widescreen, journeyman director-scripter (and co-lenser) Feng Xiaoning still conjures up some eye-watering visuals of snowy Tibetan peaks, verdant plains and colorfully costumed players that manage to engage the eyes while the ears are assaulted by a jerkily constructed and feebly dialogued script. Politics assume center stage at the end, as Xue’er (“This is also my home”) chooses to die alongside Gesang, and Jones, wandering crazed in the mountains, exclaims in voiceover, “These people will never give up, never disappear. And the land behind them is the Orient we will never conquer.”
Sole perf of note comes from talented Chinese thesp Ning (“Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker”) as the proud, arrogant Danzhu. Stateside actor Neumann — who married Ning earlier this year in Los Angeles — is a weak screen presence as the pic’s Western liberal conscience, and appears to have been voiced in some scenes by another actor. Love makes the best of a poorly written role, and other thesps are routine.
Tech credits are generally OK to good, with first-class color processing, occasional splashy use of stereo, and a catchy heroic orchestral score by Jin Fuzai. In print caught, English-lingo sequences were subtitled in Chinese.