A story of passions and prejudice set against contemporary but spectacular scenery, “Decameron of a Widow” is an intriguingly offbeat Chinese drama that should be of considerable interest to auds with a taste for Sino fare. Standing decidedly apart from recent conventions in mainland filmmaking, pic ultimately doesn’t deliver in full on its tantalizing promise, but what’s here certainly adds up to an appealing curiosity that’s bound to spark discussion at fests and other Asia-oriented situations.
Pic’s title, alternately given as “Bocaccio of a Widow,” is its first puzzler. Whether the raunchy 14th-century compendium, which was freely adapted by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1970, provided a narrative seed, pic comprises a single-strand melodrama unrelated to the fatalistic hedonism inspired by the Black Death. Perhaps “Decameron” and “Bocaccio” signify a concern for female passions, because that’s the thematic crux here. At any rate, the Italian director’s earthy explicitness hasn’t been duplicated; we’ll have to wait a while longer to see China’s first X-rated offering.
Tale opens with a brief prologue in Beijing where Wenwen, a young woman doctor, has read a newspaper article about a rural man who supposedly possesses a legendary healing potion. Curious to see for herself, she travels to a rustic village located beside a river in wild and dramatic mountain country. Her village hosts give her lodgings with Yang Mei, a pretty young widow with a little son and a decided romantic quandary.
Yang Mei has caught the eye of two men who could not be more different. Manman, a passionate young boatman, has moored near her house on the river and pursues her with extravagant declarations of his affection. Her other suitor, Liu Yaoxian, the doctor who allegedly holds the elixir sought by Wenwen, is an august figure in the town and signals his ardor more discreetly. Manman’s rivalrous hatred of Dr. Liu has an upsetting effect all around, and that disruptiveness could be the crucial factor in Yang Mei’s ultimate decision.
Pic’s unusual charm comes from its mix of folkloric romance and documentary-like realism. Though the story increasingly rambles and fails to bring thematic issues into satisfying focus, the ways and look of rural China are fascinatingly rendered, with the scenery alone exerting strong appeal and the villagers evidently playing themselves.
Debuting helmer Xiao Feng, formerly the lenser of films including “One & Eight” and “Evening Liaison,” uses lush widescreen images to make the most of pic’s exotic location. Perfs are generally strong, with Song Jia’s attractive, sensitive widow proving a standout. Tech credits are up to par.