When righteous indignation comes in the door, drama often jumps out the window, and “Sandstorm” — a well-intended, awkwardly executed parable about China’s crackdown on the spiritual movement Falun Gong — is airborne from the outset. Admittedly, followers of Falun Gong will revel in the vicarious vengeance wrought against Beijing via bad-karma-fueled weather, and with a membership estimated between 70 million and 100 million people, that’s quite a fan base. Finding a crossover aud, however, will be no day at the beach for the pic, which opens Sept. 4, more than five years after first hitting the fest circuit.
The conceit: The brutal treatment of Falun Gong, as perpetrated by former president Ziang Jemin, has brought China a sandstorm that has buried much of the landscape, cut off power and immobilized the population (“special effects” are limited to static shots of sand-strewn streets). An equally critical storm is happening within the psyches of the principals, specifically Hetian Ying (Rong Tian), a midlevel police official who’s assigned to torture “confessions” out of Falun Gong subscribers, and who’s tortured himself by the cruelty and unfairness of his job.
Ying and his wife (Zeng Ziyu) are living by candlelight, burning the furniture for fuel, wracked by the disappearance of their young daughter (Annie Li), who had been waiting at school for her father when the sandstorm struck. Mom, who has done her share of Falun Gong-bashing, is a mess; Dad is trying to hold things together and revisit the events that have led to this cosmic payback. His recollections include the brutal interrogation (it’s actually pretty tame) of a schoolteacher whose adherence to the Falun Gong principles of “truthfulness, compassion and forbearance” shame all those around her, including a young policewoman (Angela Huang) who acts as our stand-in.
“Sandstorm” is prefaced by titles that explain how, throughout history, mankind has had to pay the price for its shortsightedness and inhumanity through natural and man-made disasters that have come as a direct result of bad behavior. It’s a premise that sets up the movie, of course, but leaves one wondering about all the acts of human stupidity that weren’t followed by earthquakes, floods, planetary collisions or, yes, sandstorms. The viewer could make the leap, one supposes, if anything else in the film were convincing, but helmer Michael Mahonen seems too intent on creating a heartfelt pro-Falun Gong message than in converting the skeptical — or anyone looking for plausible storytelling.
The pic was reportedly produced for less than $5,000, and it looks it. Great drama can, of course, be fashioned with no production values whatsoever, but this requires the kind of direction and acting not to be found within the maelstrom of “Sandstorm.” (Lead actor Rong came on at the last minute and should probably be forgiven.) Mahonen’s movie is preaching to the choir, and even they might have a problem.