(Mandarin Chinese dialogue)
The rural Chinese meller gets a partial make-over in “The Sun Has Ears,” an elliptically told, elemental tale of a woman torn between two men that manages to sustain interest and spring a few surprises despite familiar stereotypes. Pic could have limited legs as an arthouse item but looks likely to see more daylight in the Weston the festival trail and through small-screen sales.
Produced and partly financed by well-known mainland actress Zhang Yu, the movie is directed by Hong Kong-based Yim Ho (“The Day the Sun Turned Cold”), who’s spent most of his career since the mid-’80s shooting movies in China. “Ears” drew a generally appreciative response at the recent Berlin fest, where Yim shared the director prize with Richard Loncraine (“Richard III”).
Story unfolds in a desolate area of northern China during the early ’20s, when warlords-cum-bandits were giving the weak central government a run for its money. When impoverished young bride Youyou (Zhang) collapses from hunger at the door of handsome buccaneer Pan Hao (You Yong), he immediately decides to have her, much to the chagrin of his current squeeze, Widow Ma (Jiang Yanqiang).
Youyou’s canny husband, Tianyou (Gao Qiang), who owes money locally, makes a deal with Pan to loan him Youyou for 10 days. Unwillingly, Youyou complies, but — in an erotically charged sequence involving a noodle-making machine — her resistance blossoms into true sexual attraction. At the end of the allotted period, she returns to Tianyou and abject poverty.
When government forces surround the village, Pan manages to escape, taking Youyou with him. Recovering from his wounds, and with Youyou now carrying his child, Pan returns to the fray, which leads to a complex series of betrayals and counter-betrayals in which all parties find their lives changed.
Though the main characters of a determined peasant woman, her dumb but guileful husband and a handsome bandit are stereotypes of the genre, the film comes up smelling fresh thanks to its offbeat narrative style and constantly changing alliances. Ellipses in the story are often filled in at a later stage — details concerning Pan’s identity, Youyou’s loan-out, Tianyou’s betrayal of Pan’s whereabouts, and so on — giving the movie an oblique feel. And the oscillating fortunes of the protagonists neatly mirror the political and social chaos of the time.
Though a tad old for the part, Zhang gives herself one of the best roles in her 20-year career, largely devoted to parts that have capitalized on her cute looks. Gao is excellent as her crafty, plug-ugly husband, always on the lookout for a favorable deal but forever doomed to the minor league. You is a good physical presence as Pan but rather too likable for a character described as “the terror of all the villages.”
Yim shows equal expertise in handling the big set pieces, such as the attack on the village, and more intimate moments, often shot in tight close-up, between the two lovers. Matching the barrenness of the locale, Zhao Fei’s cinematography is bathed in red and russet hues, with green almost totally excluded. Occasional poetic intertitles tend to tip the story too much toward melodrama, and could be eliminated.
Sinophiles will note that a final voiceover strongly recalls a device in Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum,” one of whose scripters, novelist Mo Yan, is credited here as a consultant. Print shown at Berlin carried the English title “The Sun Listens,” though “The Sun Has Ears” literally translates the Chinese.