Charging full tilt against the shortsighted policies of Chinese apparatchiks, actor Ning Cai’s helming debut “Season of the Horse” is an evocative and hauntingly sad expression of a Mongolian herder squeezed between environmental and societal forces beyond his control. Presented as a Don Quixote figure helplessly watching his noble, nomadic existence pulled out from under him, Ning’s plea for greater awareness is artfully lensed and movingly acted, offering up a sharp riposte to government policies strangling traditional rural lifestyles. A natural for human rights fests, pic is strong enough to warrant limited arthouse exposure.
From the opening shot, presenting a distant arid terrain bisected by a chain link fence, Ning reinforces both the vast expanse of Inner Mongolia and the seemingly random land grabs separating herders from their traditional pastures.
Wurgen (Ning) is a nomadic shepherd struggling to survive a grueling drought with his wife Yingjidma (Na Renhua) and young son. A proud man unwilling to give up his traditions and disinterested in joining the exodus to the city, he struggles with keeping his few remaining sheep alive on the parched steppes. Pleas to sell his horse are ignored, since for Wurgen his horse represents both memories of his better days and a link to the glories of the Mongol past.
At a meeting with local communist officials, the impoverished herders are told they have to fend for themselves. When Wurgen attempts to move his dwindling flock to his traditional autumn pastureland, he’s confronted by men erecting a new fence, raised by the government in a belated attempt to protect diminishing grasslands.
Unable to pay the fees for their son’s schooling, the more practical but woefully unworldly Yingjidma tries to pressure her husband to move to the city. When this fails, she rebels against Wurgen’s obstinacy.
The story is full of the little things that push people over the edge, and Ning sensitively presents a family torn between financial pressures and the desire to maintain a centuries-old lifestyle. Recent settlers in the area are viewed as interlopers.
In a powerful scene, a group of workers from a local distillery suddenly invade the quiet steppes with raucous noises and bright red and yellow advertisement floats, treating the resident shepherds in their yurts as simple-minded people best seen as tourist attractions.
Beautifully capturing the particular quandary faced by unschooled women struggling to keep a family together, Na Renhua (also a producer) invests Yingjidma with a sense of determination yet vulnerability — she’s not rebelling against the hard life of a herdsman’s wife but rather fighting for survival on any terms possible. Ning understands the silent rage that attaches itself to helplessness, and presents a compelling portrait of the despairing paterfamilias. Both stars worked together previously in “Heavenly Grassland.”
Ning employs a mostly stately pace with his camerawork, silhouetting his figures against the simplicity of the vast landscape, until emotional scenes see him switch to subjective, jerky lensing. He has an instinctive feel for light and dark, earth tones contrasted with bright colors, and clearly glories in the majesty of the Mongolian plain.