More a collection of vignettes than a fully realized drama, semiautobiographical “The First Light” reps an interesting debut by writer-helmer Li Songlin that should interest kidfests and cable channels looking for ethnic-flavored fare. Set amid the Hani ethnic minority of Yunnan province, southern China, quietly entertaining pic scores its highest points on the technical side, with mobile camerawork, lean cutting and short segs creating a sense of flow that echoes the water-filled rice terraces and sinuous landscape that backdrop the characters’ lives.
Chinese title (“Ema’s Son”) refers to both the Hani mother-goddess and pic’s central tyke, Shui (Zhang Yunrui), who lives deep in the countryside with his taciturn father (Zhang Fushou), a seller of Yunnan-style hookahs, and his teen sister. It’s the early ’80s, and Shui is more interested in sneaking into the local movie theater to watch Jet Li, or befriending a cute moppet in class, than in seriously studying under pretty young teacher Zhu (co-scripter Fu Shaojie). Adult players provide a solid background to kid thesp Zhang Yunrui’s charming perf as the quicksilver Shui, whose dream world is far from the locals’ hardscrabble lives.