A simply lensed ensembler, marbled with moments of irony, about a bunch of youngsters at a pre-college rural crammer, “Ta Pu” skirts the potential politics of its setting to concentrate on well-drawn characters all with their own reasons for needing to pass the crucial exam. Accessible debut by writer-actor-helmer-editor Wang Wei has definite potential at fests looking to showcase new works by less arty mainland Chinese filmmakers.
Setting is the remote Ta Pu township, Sichuan province, where the motley collection of locals enrolling at the school include Wang Zhengguo (helmer Wang), fresh out of the army, where he tended pigs; lively Chen Hao (Chen Hao) ; married-with-kid Wang Quan (Wang Xinzhong), who wants to be a leader; and diminutive Mo Zhuo (Li Youyou), who’s only ever worked as a wheat harvester.
The four bunk down together in the same makeshift dorm, and Wang Zhengguo is made class monitor by school head Kong (Zhao Cunli), his original teacher. Early scenes have an easy charm as the pupils lark around and their eccentric teacher, Ma Zhong (Cao Yu), keeps canceling classes whenever his students won’t get serious.
Meanwhile, Chen has fallen for fellow pupil Yueyue (Zhao Jia), whom he serenades and writes love letters to. Also, Wang Zhengguo gradually gets friendly with the attractive Li Ailian (Liu Ying), who has a troubled family background with an alcoholic father and family debts. Blossoming of this latter relationship forms the main emotional stem of the pic.
Conflict between the pupils’ desire to go college and the realities of hardscrabble peasant life surfaces when the township’s wheat has to be harvested. The whole community, including students and teachers, go to the fields so the youngsters can return to their studies in time.
Twenty or more years ago, this kind of movie (rural education, communal values, etc.) would have been an excuse for Party pamphleteering; strength of “Ta Pu” is that the humanist subtext is preserved but characters, not politics, lead the charge. As well as helmer Wang Wei, equal credit is due Liu Zhenyun, whose original 1987 story first brought him recognition. A few years ago, Liu also scripted Feng Xiaogang’s satire of contempo urban life, “Cell Phone.”
Some of the irony of Feng’s pic can also be seen in “Ta Pu,” which opens and closes with a delightful scene of the village chief pompously addressing the townsfolk as a raggedy band plays in the background. Other characters, like teacher Ma and the bozo school chef (Huo Suqing), forever quizzing the students with dumb questions, also lighten the tone.
Casting and ensemble perfs are all on the money. Tech package is unadorned but fine.