A long-spanned story set across two decades in the wilds of western China and Tibet, “Eagle Flute” doesn’t rely just on exoticism for effect. Intriguing feature debut by d.p./former documaker Jiang Tao is more interesting for how it lays out its cards, withholding info from the viewer in the early stages before showing its hand in the second half. Result could sneak into festival sidebars.
First half-hour, set in the ’80s, captures the exuberance of a period when many young graduates traveled to western China (here, Ganzi, in Sichuan province) in search of new horizons. Playful Shi Lei (Wu Wei) and more serious Fu Yong (Wang Zheng) operate a mobile film theater, and both fall for local lass Hu Lizhi (Yang Li’na), who joins up with them. When they become stranded in the freezing mountains, Fu goes off to get help. Only subsequently, in what initially seems like another movie set 18 years later, does the whole story emerge. The main narrative relies on too many neat coincidences, but the performances, especially in the early going, are fresh and the tech package is consistently pro.