Impossible to sum up without sounding totally silly, “A Tale of Two Donkeys” is an involving, beautifully modulated yarn about a young intellectual’s “war” with two equines in a mountain village during the Cultural Revolution. Impressive feature debut by successful TV director Li Dawei constructs its own believably quirky, blackly humorous universe within a realistically grim setting. Pic has already cantered into some fest derbies and would make a prime contender for ethnic webs and mainland Chinese film weeks.
The setting is a tiny Beigao village in Shanxi province, northern China, whither has been sent, along with many others, Ma Jie (Wen Zhang), an “intellectual” (a general Maoist term for any educated city dweller), for political retraining. Screenplay by Shu Ping (“Keep Cool,” “Devils on the Doorstep”) early establishes Ma as a slightly spacey guy who exists in his own world, but is also smart when he needs to be.
Assigned, to his relief, to the relatively cushy job of livestock keeper, he takes a disliking to one stud donkey, Heiliu (Black Six), because of the animal’s pampered existence. Determined to establish his dominance over the cocky equine, he secretly injects it with an anesthetic he knows will knock it out for two hours and then, in front of everyone, “magically” resuscitates it.
After Ma further humiliates the donkey, even robbing it of its sex drive, the commune decides Heiliu should be slaughtered for its meat, and Ma is given the task — a humorously macabre sequence processed in black-and-white. But Heiliu’s younger brother, Heiqi (Black Seven), has been watching the whole time, and is determined to take revenge on Ma.
Without Disney-fying the animals in any way, helmer Li manages, through editing and closeup inserts, to create a convincing conflict between beast and human that’s quite gripping in its own way. The trick is that the whole thing may be happening in Ma’s head — certainly, none of the local peasantry or the doctrinaire female brigade chief (Yue Hong) believe him — and it’s he who always takes the blame for one snafu after another.
A second Great Wall could be built from films set during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but “Donkeys” finds a fresh angle. Without directly mocking the Maoist movement, which here simply serves as a background to the story, it addresses the theme of mass obsession, during which reality can be skewed, in an oblique way.
Script doesn’t push its idea of animal-human interface nearly as far as “Equus.” The fine cast keeps the ironic humor gently bubbling, with Wen good as the outmaneuvered Ma, and Yue especially good as the doctrinaire cadre. In her first role since graduating, young actress Bai Jing is fine as a peasant girl who falls for Ma with embarrassingly funny results.
Wintry Shanxi locations, sans snow, are cleanly lensed in brown tones by d.p. Du Jie (“Crazy Stone”). Early ’70s production design is spot-on. The original title roughly means “Let’s wait and see.”