Those wowed by Chinese-Korean helmer Zhang Lu’s minimalist debut feature “Tang Poetry” will no doubt warm to his equally minimal follow-up “Grain in Ear.” Others will fault Zhang’s need to belabor every element and predictably signpost each catastrophe that befalls a struggling single mother living on the edges of an industrial no man’s land. As everyone knows, no one buys rat poison in a movie and only uses it on bothersome rodents. With its stationary camera, sloth-like pacing and unwavering pessimism, pic is strictly fest material.
Young mom Cui (Liu Lianji) falls between the cracks in many ways: She’s of Korean ethnicity in a country (China) not known for embracing its minorities, her husband’s in jail, and she’s poor. With her son Chang-ho (press kits give no indication of who plays who), she lives in a cement box barely disguised as a home, next to a group of prostitutes and within a stone’s throw of the train tracks.
Cui scrapes by selling kimchi, a pickled Korean side dish, to workers along the dusty roads that support various nondescript factories. As an illegal vendor, she’s always in danger of having her cart impounded, but policeman Wang likes her food and arranges for her to bypass the usual red tape and get a license.
This should be a bright moment for Cui, but she knows that life won’t really get any better. She’s taken up with Kim, a fellow Chinese-Korean, more out of the need for human contact than emotional attraction, but he’s married and his wife denounces her as a prostitute to the police, who lock her up overnight in jail, where she’s raped by Wang.
There’s barely a whiff of emotion in “Grain in Ear” (a literal translation of the Chinese harvest season), as if the weight of sadness sits so heavily on the characters that it keeps their faces frozen and prevents them from moving at more than a snail’s pace. Frequent shots of Cui’s belabored pedaling make it difficult to know whether Wang’s shout of “what’s your hurry?” is meant to be funny, or if Zhang even realizes there’s a chuckle to be had from the line.
Predictably, the frozen camera moves only five minutes before pic’s end. Until then, the figures slowly exit right or left beyond the picture frame, or Zhang hides them behind walls, or cuts off their bodies. Understandably, style is rigidified by Cui’s sense of entrapment, but the point is driven home with wearying dullness.
Visually more attractive than “Tang Poetry,” Zhang has opened up his color palette at least, although the numbing semi-industrial wastelands and blue sky seem to have color only to mock the characters for their inability to enjoy them.