Two deserters during a civil war in ancient China find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks in “Wheat,” a structurally simple but tonally ambitious dramedy that marks a quality return by writer-helmer He Ping six years after the misfire of Col Asia’s “Warriors of Heaven and Earth.” Mixing awesome visual lyricism with low comedy and nods to everything from Greek tragedy to popular movie genres, the strongly cast pic should harvest fest slots prior to specialty pickups. Trimming of its more comedic moments would ripen commercial chances in the West. In China, pic is skedded for October rollout.
He, who’s directed only six features in 20 years, made an impact early on with the spaghetti Western-like “Swordsman in Double Flag Town” (1990) and visually stylized “Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker” (1993), but subsequently lost traction. “Wheat” contains elements of both those movies, but, especially in its play with color and light, the pic is his most refined so far.
The film is set in the chaotic Warring States period, a brutal, 250-year slugfest that finally resulted in China’s unification under the Qin in 221 B.C. Main story takes place over a short period during the summer of 260 B.C., following the Battle of Changping, one of the biggest slaughterhouses in history, in which Qin forces killed almost half a million Zhao troops.
He’s lean script deliberately avoids getting bogged down in historical detail. After the gorgeously lensed main titles, the camera moves through sun-blasted wheatfields to zero in on the walled Zhao town of Luyi, where all the men have left for war and the womenfolk have to bring in the harvest. In a brief, expository speech, Lady Li (Fan Bingbing), wife of absent Lord Ju Cong (Wang Xueqi), says victory over the Qin will bring their men back home soon.
The elemental nature of the story is underlined by its division into five sections corresponding to the Chinese elements: metal (aka gold), wood, water, fire and earth. First seg, “Day of Gold,” shows the marriage of the young Lady Li and the middle-aged Ju Cong, in the midst of which news arrives that the state of Zhao is now threatened by Qin. Ju Cong immediately mobilizes all men over 12 and sets off.
Cut to the aftermath (“Day of Wood”) of an exhausting battle (Changping). Two weary Qin soldiers, Xia (Huang Jue) and Zhe (Du Jiayi), decide to go AWOL and return to their village to bring in the harvest. Hiding in some wheatfields, they narrowly escape beheading by a Qin patrol and are washed downstream to Luyi, where they’re taken in by the womenfolk (“Day of Water”).
Realizing they’re in enemy hands, the two Qin deserters pretend to be Zhao soldiers and extemporize a tale for Lady Li describing Zhao’s victory. But not all of the town’s women, including Lady Li’s female shaman (Wang Ji), are entirely convinced. And when some Qin-siding bandits, led by the crazed Lord Chong (Wang Zhiwen), arrive in town, Xia and Zhe have to do some fast thinking.
On a broad level, pic plays as a partly stylized dramedy on the lunacy of war — especially civil war — in which a change of side or simple rumors can decide one’s fate in a split second. Word rapidly spreads through town about the supposed victory, causing misplaced optimism among the women.
He’s pics have always shown a strong elemental side, and here, the wheat-filled scenery, lensed in jaw-dropping widescreen by veteran Zhao Xiaoshi (“Forever Enthralled”), is an ever-present player in the characters’ minds and lives. Formally, He bolsters this with other stylized choices, such as the white-garbed womenfolk serving as a sort of Greek chorus, formal visual setups (overhead group shots, splayed bodies, Li’s chambers) and nods to various movie genres (the bandits arriving like gunslingers in a town).
The weakest aspect is the draggy comic interplay between Xia and Zhe, with Du especially grating as the handsome Xia’s doofus sidekick. Film could easily lose 10 minutes here, especially for Western auds.
The rest of the starry cast blends well, with Fan carrying the film’s emotional load in the biggest role of her career so far. She handles the part of the young wife abruptly thrust into leadership with physical aplomb, but isn’t quite up to the heavier dramatic demands of the final reels.
The entire tech package is aces at all levels. With no large-scale scenes of warfare, most of the reported $6 million budget seems to have gone into the production design by Huo Tingxiao (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), economically sketching a simpler age than later imperial China.
Chinese title literally means “Wheatfield(s).” Though set in Shanxi, northern China, the film was actually shot in the further northern province of Inner Mongolia.