Bolstered with French coin, mainland Chinese director Li Yu — who debuted four years ago with China’s first out-and-out lesbian pic, “Fish and Elephant” — returns with a handsome looking but far more conventional drama, “Dam Street.” Film’s picturesque rural setting, and low-key drama centered on a scorned woman’s friendship with a young boy, will ensure festival bookings and some arthouse exposure, but a lack of dramatic heft makes this more suitable for small-screen buyers.
Like many Chinese features made with Western partners — such as the recent “Day and Night” (made by the same companies as “Dam”) and “Shanghai Dreams” — film has the unmistakable look and flatter emotional tone of a Euro art movie. It’s also a significant move by Li away from her roots as a documaker. Still, for Western auds who respond to such fare, “Dam Street” largely delivers.
Xiaoyun (Liu Yi), a high school student in a riverside town in a southwest corner of Sichuan province, finds she’s pregnant by fellow student Wang Feng (Liu Rui). It’s 1983, and both are expelled. Xiaoyun’s mom (Li Kechun), a teacher, screams at her, and Wang’s elder sister, Zhengyue (Wang Yizhu), does the same — but Zhengyue, a nurse, helps to deliver the baby and have it secretly adopted. Xiaoyun is told the baby died in childbirth.
Ten years later, Xiaoyun, still under the shadow of her past, is working in a cheesy song-and-dance troupe, subject to occasional sexual advances by local men. By chance, she becomes friends with a cheeky kid, Xiaoyong (Huang Xingrao), from across the river.
He’s Zhengyue’s son, and — much to Zhengyue’s dislike — the two become close, with the precocious Xiaoyong becoming a kind of boyfriend to the lonely young woman. However, their friendship is thrown into the melting pot through a chance discovery by Xiaoyun’s mother.
Paragraphed by a handful of intertitles that fill in dramatic gaps in the story, film has a remote, mannered feel that — unlike Li’s previous movie — never gets to the heart of the drama. For starters, Xiaoyun’s dream of becoming a proper Sichuan opera performer (referred to in the pic’s Chinese title, “Rouge Face”) is never developed as a parallel thread, despite thesp Liu being an actual graduate of the art.
Thin story’s other emotional currents also only skirt the surface, with even Xiaoyun and Xiaoyong’s relationship largely boiling down to a series of vignettes. Major revelation that powers the third act can be seen a mile away, and the final reel is dramatically clumsy.
Still, Liu handles the central role with aplomb, convincing both as a teen and attractive young woman, and gives proof of a bright future as an actress. Huang (actually an ethnic Tibetan) is also remarkable as the kid, and both Li and Wang are solid as the mother and sister. Technical package is excellent, with Wang Wei’s cinematography of the damp Sichuan locations quietly burnished.