"The Butcher's Wife" is a respectable but dramatically unrewarding debut for writer-director Gao Xiongjie, a veteran teacher of film and television arts at China's Central Academy of Drama.

“The Butcher’s Wife” is a respectable but dramatically unrewarding debut for writer-director Gao Xiongjie, a veteran teacher of film and television arts at China’s Central Academy of Drama. This story of a simple country man chasing his ambitious runaway wife to the city goes for low-key realism but is little more than a cautionary melodrama. Mixture makes for a dreary small-scale tragedy with one-note characters whose mismatched marriage is hard to root for. Further international travel will be minor.

Qiao (Tang Huihua) expected to join China’s emerging middle class in style as an educated professional married to her high-school sweetheart Liu Fei (Zhu Yiqi). But now he’s graduating from college, while she never made it past the entrance exam. Instead, she’s wed humble butcher Liang (Fang Ye) to pay — or rather, to let him pay — her family’s debts, yet she still hasn’t relinquished her old dreams. In fact, she stalls consummating the marriage, claiming she needs to focus on one last attempt at college entry.

When that effort fails yet again, she flees to Hangzhou, where she gets a cool reception from Liu, though he takes her virginity readily enough. She stays in Hangzhou, working increasingly degrading low-end jobs, resisting the pleas of her pursuing, hapless spouse.

Liang’s pining for his wife doesn’t make much sense once she’s insulted, bankrupted, publicly humiliated and lied to him. But we’re meant to empathize with his noble, masochistic quest, while seemingly remorseless Qiao is lent no further dimensionality beyond a few expressions of self-loathing.

Beyond maintaining their vows, there’s zero reason why these two people should stay (or ever have been) together, and they hit bottom in a heavy-handed way that rings hollow; something is wrong when viewers care so little about lives so utterly destroyed.

While Gao presumably intends a more complex commentary on China’s rapidly changing socioeconomic landscape (as suggested by the constant background noise of overheard advertisements, TV news, etc.), “The Butcher’s Wife” instead ends up seeming an old-fashioned morality fable drably outfitted in quasi-verite trappings. Despite frequent handheld visual immediacy and naturalistic acting, the ultimate point here seems to be “Woman, stay home and know your place!” A subtler treatment would have let us feel Qiao’s pain as the “economic miracle” passes her by — she’s smart enough to want more from life than mountain-village peasantry, albeit not bright enough to achieve it — but Gao’s script offers her up as just a callous ingrate sticking pins in a devoted husband’s heart.

The most notable element in the design package, if one that tends to underline the pic’s repetitiveness, is the use of blind folk musician Tong Zhaoji as a sort of singing commentator during interstitials that chart the narrative’s progress over several seasons.

For the record, the pic traveled the fest circuit over the past year under the title “Wiangliang’s Ideal.”

The Butcher's Wife

China

Production

A Sea Original production. (International sales: Smiley Film Sales, Auckland, New Zealand.) Produced by Wang Xuemei. Directed, written by Gao Xiongjie.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Guo Jia; editor, Li Fang; music, Tong Zhaoji; production designer, Xu Wenzheng; sound, Yi Xiong. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Oct. 20, 2011. (In Mill Valley Film Festival -- World Cinema; Busan, Karlovy Vary, Singapore film festivals.) Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Fang Ye, Tang Huihua, Yu Changliu, Hu Yibo, Zhu Yiqi. (Mandarin dialogue)
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