Lacking any other references to Ingmar Bergman apart from its title, Chinese meller “The Wild Strawberries” is a moving portrait of a clash between Maoist bureaucracy and an illicit love affair. Politically charged romancer should appeal to festival auds with its unassuming tone and restrained perfs, at least until an odd, nonsensical contempo coda that will leave Chinese audiences scratching their heads. Commercial prospects look limited.
Set in early 1970s Chongqing, when the possibility of a Russian invasion was a major Chinese concern, pic opens with the heroic death of a young soldier during the collapse of a tunnel in an air-raid shelter. Embracing a propaganda opportunity, Red Army bureaucrats decide it would be inspirational for fellow workers if widowed Luo Xuemei (Zhou Chuchu) were to give a report on her husband’s patriotic death. The mild-mannered Luo is too overcome by grief to comply, until the bureaucrats ask her to participate in an opera based on her husband’s death.
Luo appears to gain some therapeutic balm from the musical performance, but one co-worker at the munitions factory is unmoved, and sends her an anonymous note outlining concerns about the party’s exploitation of her husband’s death. When they are stationed together, handsome worker Zhu Fuzhong (Shang Yubo) confesses to Luo that he wrote the letter. Though she had initially reported the note to their staff director, Du (Dong Jiang), Luo demurely admits to Zhu that she shares his feelings.
Luo and Zhu become kindred spirits as they toil together in the rifle-testing zone, nursing a growing attraction. The pair keep their relationship quiet to circumnavigate the official policy that comradeship should remain strictly platonic; violation could incur severe penalties. Despite their caution, however, others, including Du, become suspicious.
Chen Bing’s helming is off-putting at first, using a wobbly camera to suggest the tunnel’s collapse on the cheap, and scenes depicting the fervor of revolutionary theater are marked by a deliberately stilted atmosphere. But as the story finds its footing and the central romance unfolds, Chen employs an understated style that allows the melodrama to quietly seep in and build a calm critique of communist mores. Pic flirts with censorship constraints in a sequence involving erotic consumption of strawberries, but gets the message across without pushing the envelope too far.
Just as the drama reaches a satisfying conclusion, it strikes a tonally jarring note by jumping ahead 30 years to modern-day Chongqing, making a superfluous observation about the decadence of modern China in comparison with the earlier era’s restraint. Finale ruins the pic’s quiet achievement, but could easily be trimmed for international release.
Zhou appears meek as Luo, but marbles her character’s political subservience with a quiet strength. Shang radiates a strong, silent presence as a background character before Zhu and Lou actually meet, and builds on that magnetism with a convincing portrayal of a young man filled with too much integrity, and desire, to avoid trouble. Supporting perfs are solid all around, and Dong supplies much of the pic’s dramatic tension by imbuing his spurned bureaucrat with menacing gravitas.
Lensing is as low-key as Chen’s direction, but in the contempo coda becomes as garish as the decadence it depicts. All other tech credits are low-budget pro.