More filmed coffee-table book than documentary, Liu Soung’s “Yellow Sheep River” sports postcard-perfect imagery aplenty but reveals little about life in western China’s Gansu province. Aiming for a poetic essay a la yesteryear’s “city symphony” pics, the film feels over-calculated as an objet d’art, its grandiose contrivance underlined by weirdly inappropriate soundtrack choices. Eye-candy surface may attract some fest and tube programmers, but without much tangible substance to offer, “River” may fall between the commercial cracks.
Moving randomly around the region, the helmer frames landscapes and people with equal care, briefly dwelling on a few picturesque citizens: needleworkers, livestock shearers, sweet-bun bakers, a bicycle-riding peddler. There’s no translated speech, explanatory commentary or onscreen text. But the problem here isn’t so much a lack of context as the sense that Liu’s guiding principle is simply finding (or staging) the prettiest pictures, rather than having anything to say with or about them. Resulting gorgeous but empty travelogue eventually grows tedious. Briefly heard traditional music only renders more off-key the use of standard Western orchestral classics, Celtic airs, even a Piaf chanson. Assembly is glossy to a fault.