More interesting as a technical calling card than as a fully rounded film, road movie “The Journey Away” reps a technically accomplished debut feature by young Shanghai-born commercials helmer Wang Zhi that just needs some more work on the script. Some fests could bite at this collection of vignettes posing as a voyage of self-discovery, while others may wait to see if Wang’s already completed second feature, “Dalian: Sunshine Today,” brings more to the table in terms of content.
After lucking on a photo of his pregnant mom that’s dated the year of his birth, Wei Yi (Guo Peng), a rebellious 16-year-old in Tianjin, sets out by train on a long journey to Shaanxi province to find the man he believes to be his real father. Initially without his knowledge, his baby stepsister, Xiao Mi (He Qinwan, charming), has stolen along on the same trip.
En route, in neighboring Hebei province, the pair meet a collection of weird individuals: a tattooed circus performer (Fei Long), a drug-dealing couple (Xie Ning, Teng Fei) and a young female photog (Li Jia, “The Park”) who never smiles.
Wei’s voiceover (spoken by helmer Wang) tries to parse the various encounters into a growing-up process. However, the script (credited to Wang and two other writers) serves up teenage generalities rather than real moments of self-discovery.
Still, the pic is worth a look just for Dong Yue’s fabulous, saturated lensing of sun-drenched Hebei locations around Zhujiakou, which brings the pic a slightly surreal, dreamlike quality. Animated segs, sketching Wei’s state of mind, range from an aggressively manga-like opening to more delicate inserts later on. They enhance the sense that the journey may all be in Wei’s head but don’t add any extra layers of meaning.