As somber as a funeral procession, “White Deer Plain” is a plodding 175-minute family saga that offers a microcosm of the collapse of the agrarian feudal system in turn-of-the-century China. With a spirit of deterministic doom that echoes that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” sans magic realism, this latest effort from helmer Wang Quan’an (“Tuya’s Marriage,” “Apart Together”) proceeds with an unwavering seriousness of purpose, but the production’s epic scale is not matched artistically by its elliptical characterization and lukewarm drama. Pic has a festival-ready pedigree but modest arthouse distribution hopes offshore.
The vast, burnished wheat belt of the northwestern Chinese province of Shaanxi provides a timeless, almost mythic tapestry on which to unfurl the intertwined fates of the Bai and Lu families, which span 26 years in Wang’s adaptation of Chen Zhongshi’s 1993 award-winning novel. For centuries the two clans have lived in harmony, sharing their domination of Bai Lu Village (which means “White Deer Village”), a self-sufficient farming community whose residents’ lives and moral conduct revolve around the ancestral shrine, presided over by chief clansman Bai Jiaxuan (Zhang Fengyi). In a long, leisurely stretch beginning in 1912, Wang paints the idyllic childhood friendships among Xiaowen, the son of Jiaxuan; Heiwa, the son of Jiaxuan’s loyal retainer, Lu San; and Zhaopeng, the son of mayor Lu Zilin (Wu Gang, also a schemer in “The Great Magician”).
Eight years later, rambunctious Zhaopeng (Guo Tao), who was rambunctious even as a child, becomes a progressive local teacher, but runs away to join the Communist Party to escape an arranged marriage. The docile Xiaowen (Cheng Taishen) half-heartedly steps into his father’s shoes as clan chief. Less privileged Heiwa (Duan Yihong) is a hired harvester for a neighboring farm but ends up doing a different kind of plowing when he sets eyes on his master’s nubile and sexually deprived concubine, Tian Xiao’e (Kitty Zhang Yuqi).
Found out, the adulterous couple is sent home in disgrace. When Jiaxuan refuses to grant them a lawful union within the ancestral shrine, the seeds are sown for bitterness and revenge. Heiwa finds a murderous outlet for his outrage against social injustice after Zhaopeng initiates him into the insurrectional farmers’ union; later, Zilin lures Xiao’e into his own self-serving schemes.
Wang charts a succession of clashes with various armed authorities who march into the village with one purpose only: to loot the peasants’ hard-earned harvest. Despite the lengthy running time, events unfold in hasty and confusing fashion, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the domination of warlords, and the various power grabs by communists, Kuomintang officers and roving bandits all sweeping past far too quickly. Scenarios of incendiary dramatic potential, such as peasant revolts, severe ritual punishments and beheading with ancient guillotines, are underplayed to the point of muteness.
Elsewhere, the explicit and quite kinky sex scenes seem to belong to another movie, and have the effect of distracting from the three second-generation protags, whose disparate motives and ways of rebelling against patriarchal society should be pivotal in reflecting the film’s central theme of historical rupture. The moral standoff between Jiaxuan’s upstanding, conservative Confucianism, Zilin’s selfish but more contempo capitalist instincts, and Heiwa’s volatile brutality masked as revolutionary zeal could have provided riveting tension, but these conflicts fizzle out without a satisfying payoff at the end.
Wang’s fine, thoughtfully selected thesps partly assuage the film’s frosty, entomological tone and consequently wan drama. Though he does not occupy extensive screen time, Zhang Fengyi gives the impression of a silently judgmental presence standing firm against the currents of social change and human caprice. Kitty Zhang Yuqi boldly projects an animal instinct that alternately captivates and repulses, capable of turning from sexually demanding wildcat into meek, easily manipulated kitten whenever survival requires it. The other actors deliver more than serviceable perfs, despite underwritten and emotionally stunted roles.
Pic boasts a handsome, stately package. Visual scheme is distinguished by stationary wide shots of large crowds that look like classical tableaus and symbolize the collective nature of Chinese society. Gleaming, golden wheat fields, captured in panoramic shots over four seasons, provide a backdrop as beautiful as French impressionist paintings, while the lighting has the deep chiaroscuro effects of the Dutch masters. Production makes extensive use of local architecture, including wide, protruding terraces, gothic chambers and primitive cave dwellings, all of which have a rustic, ancient ambience.
Folksy score by Zhao Jiping and the performances of a traditional Shaanxi orchestra, which literally stomps and thumps its instruments (including a brick and a bench) in three scenes, are potently earthy, evoking the macho nature of the society depicted.