Aprecision-tooled art movie that touches on what contempo China has lost in its drive toward a market economy, "Day and Night" also reps a technical advance for writer-director Wang Chao on his first pic, "The Orphan of Anyang," but a loss in individuality. Fests may bite, but the French co-production won't make it far beyond Gallic salles.

Aprecision-tooled art movie that touches on what contempo China has lost in its drive toward a market economy, “Day and Night” also reps a technical advance for writer-director Wang Chao on his first pic, “The Orphan of Anyang” (2001), but a loss in individuality. Lensed with a visual deliberation that seems aimed at European arthouses, story of an entrepreneurial miner racked by guilt over the death of his lover’s husband is a curiously lifeless item that falls short of its seemingly mythic intent. Fests may bite, but the French co-production won’t make it far beyond Gallic salles.

Set in the fictional community of Tianquan, somewhere in bleak northern China, pic centers on handsome coal miner Li Guangsheng (Liu Lei) who lives and works with the older Zhongmin (Sun Guilin), a father figure. Guangsheng, who is secretly having a hotsy affair with Zhongmin’s wife, is mortified when Zhongmin dies in a mine explosion and blames himself for not saving his friend.

Clobbered by an attack of impotence, he sends Zhongmin’s widow away. After buying the mine under a new government policy designed to encourage private initiative, Guangsheng works like a Trojan to clear and re-open the site. He’s joined in this by Zhongmin’s son, A-fu (Xiao Ming), and gradually makes a success of the mine.

However, Guangsheng still feels he has to make more amends to Zhongmin’s family and the community in general. He gives his workers generous bonuses and holiday breaks and starts advertising for a wife for A-fu.

Theme of a man seeking absolution needs either a gutsier or a more poetic touch than helmer Wang summons here. There’s no sense of physical struggle — man against a desolate landscape — in the immaculately composed photography by Mongolian d.p. Yihuhewula, nor any sense of interior conflict in the blank-faced performance by Liu as Guangsheng.

Though the film never collapses under the weight of its own artiness, neither does it spring to life in an emotionally engaging way. With fixed-camera setups, very little dialogue, and equally little music until the very end, “Day and Night” is more a series of striking tableaux (gray fissured landscapes vs. richly colored costumes) in search of a human story.

Pic was shot around Wuchuan, just north of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

Day And Night

China-France

Production

A Laurel Films (China)/Rosem Films (France) production, in association with China Film Fourth Group and Arte France Cinema. (International sales: Onoma, Paris.) Produced by Fang Li, Sylvain Bursztejn. Executive producers, Fang, Yang Buting, Bursztejn. Directed, written by Wang Chao.

Crew

Camera (color), Yihuhewula ; editor, Zhou Xinxia; music, Qin Wenchen; art director, Qiu Sheng; costumes, Bao Rima; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Xueyi. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 14, 2004. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Liu Lei, Wang Lan, Xiao Ming, Wang Zheng, Sun Guilin, Zhang Guangjie. (Mandarin dialogue)
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more