Cai Shangjun, regular scripter for mainland helmer Zhang Yang over the past decade (“Spicy Love Soup,” “Shower,” “Sunflower”), makes a solid directorial debut with “The Red Awn,” a quietly affecting father-and-son drama set amid the scenic cornfields of central Gansu province. Impressively lensed, and with a sensitive perf by Yao Anlian as a widower trying to make a buck while dealing with his moody teen kid, pic doesn’t have enough dramatic conflict to take it far beyond the fest circuit but remains watchable nonetheless.
Yao plays Song, who returns to his village after five years away working to find he’s been officially registered as dead by his 17-year-old son, Yongtao (Lu Yulai, “Peacock”). In Song’s absence, his wife has fallen sick and died, and Yongtao mopes around, scarcely talking to his dad.
Song sets out with a friend, Yongshan (Shi Junhui), who owns a red combine harvester (pic’s Chinese title), to cut wheat in surrounding fields. Yongtao reluctantly joins them but remains surly, at one point almost running his dad down with the harvester.
Just when the movie starts to become repetitive, the story picks up some juice when Yongtao shows interest in the attractive but slightly trashy young owner of one field (Huang Lu, female lead in “Blind Mountain”). Thinking she’s a hooker from the city, Song offers her money to bed Yongtao, a misunderstanding that doesn’t help the father-son relationship one bit. But as the harvesting season wears on, and a recurrent back problem plagues Song, the two slowly grow closer.
Pic gains much from the central performance of Yao (“Shanghai Dreams”) as the widower who feels guilty about being away during his son’s adolescence, but is equally concerned, with no wife or stable income, about their future. Scenes of him with a woman who joins them on the road, and later with a friend’s widow he feels obligated toward, have a tenderness missing in his relationship with his son.
Script, co-written by Cai with film critic Gu Xiaobai and Feng Rui, takes a long time to clarify Yongtao’s character, and early scenes of the teen perpetually being surly drag the film down. Slight trimming would help in the first half, though overall the screenplay is short on real character conflict to drive the movie.
Tech package is very professional, with standout lensing by Li Chengyu and Chen Hao of the summertime Gansu landscape.