Low on drama and originality, and high on deja vu, pic could still find a limited arthouse audience.
Take a quietly scenic Chinese background, a large helping of backward peasant stereotypes and stir in (very slowly) the socially pertinent theme of sold-off brides and you have “Blind Mountain,” a shake ‘n’bake meal that’s instant fest fodder. Low on drama and originality, and high on deja vu, sophomore outing by writer-director Li Yang (“Blind Shaft,” 2003) could still find a limited arthouse audience, especially in occidental markets that respond to social portraits of mainland Chinese backwardness.
Whether one responds or not to the pic’s (certainly valid) theme — story is set in the early ’90s but could equally take place nowadays in many far-flung areas of China — pic has a deadening lack of dramatic development and a plethora of thinly drawn characters. Most of the action, and the story’s potentially interesting developments, take place during the final reel, which then abruptly ends with a facile, grandstanding finish just when things are getting interesting.
Setting is a remote region somewhere in northern China, where perky student Bai Xuemei (Beijing Film Academy student Huang Lu) has come to earn money to help her family. Traveling to a tiny village in a mountain-ringed valley with the manager of a herbal medicine company, she wakes up the following day to find herself abandoned and sold off for 7,000 yuan as a bride to the son, Huang Degui (Yang Youan), of one of the families. Much later, it’s revealed she was drugged.
Protesting, Xuemei is told by Degui, “Give me back the money (a sizable amount for a peasant family) and you can leave if you want.” But sans coin, Xuemei finds herself held captive, forcibly held down by Degui’s parents (Jia Yinggao, Zhang Yuling) while he has his way, and told by other sold-off brides in the village that it’s best to adapt to the status quo.
After several failed attempts at running away — all defeated by the community’s solidarity — Xuemei knuckles down for the time being, and forms a friendship with Degui’s cousin, Decheng (He Yunle), a kindly young teacher who seems to offer a potential chance of escape. Their friendship turns into something more, but both have separate agendas.
Attractively but realistically lensed by Taiwanese d.p. Jong Lin (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) in the Qinling Mountains near Xi’an, Shaanxi province, film touches most of the bases of Mainland rural dramas of the past 20 years: rural practicality, lack of education, strong community solidarity, the passing of the seasons. Perfs by the local, non-pro cast are all right as far as Li’s script goes, which is not very far. Family and villagers are one-note taciturn and money-obsessed, while Huang’s Xuemei is largely sullen, the only gimpses into her character provided at the start and in occasional later chats with Decheng.
Absence of music, aside from local ditties, accentuates the hard-scrabble rural atmosphere but also underlines the fact that there’s little emotional underpinning to the rote story.