The creative chemistry between mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Jiarui and actress Zhang Jingchu goes seriously wrong in “Red River,” after two remarkable outings (“Huayao Bride in Shangri-La” and the socko “The Road”) that helped establish her as a talent to watch. Handsome production values and good perfs by the rest of the cast, including Hong Kong’s Nick Cheung and Loletta Lee, can’t hide the emotional vacuum in this story of a mentally challenged Vietnamese woman caught up in a border-town love triangle. Pic did OK business locally last spring but has made few ripples offshore.
Prologue, set in Vietnam in 1975, shows tyke Tao (Xu Junhan) traumatized when her soldier father (Xue Wenkang) is blown up by a land mine while the two are playing with a kite. Twelve years later, the grown Tao (Zhang Jingchu) arrives illegally in a bordertown in Yunnan province, China, where her aunt, Shui (Lee), has arranged work at her massage parlor.
One night, escaping from a police raid, Tao ends up in the apartment of broke, unemployed Mo Zhongxia (Cheung), whom Tao mistakes for her father. Shui warns Mo that Tao is still a virgin and he should refrain from any hanky-panky, but lets him exploit her fine singing voice by setting up a roadside karaoke.
This should be the start of a touching love story between the childlike Tao and loser Mo, who still pines for a Yunnan opera performer who dumped him years ago. But Zhang’s performance as Tao is so one-dimensionally wide-eyed that not enough sparks are generated to make Mo’s growing attraction to Tao convincing after their initial, semi-comedic scenes.
Mo’s eventual attempt to rescue Tao from the attentions of a Chinese-Vietnamese gangster (Hong Kong’s Danny Lee) ring as false as the ethnic minority strand that’s later stitched into the story (Mo is from the Yao minority around the Red River region, already celebrated by helmer Zhang in “Huaoyao Bride”).
Cheung, who’s developing into one of Hong Kong’s finest character actors, is alright here, but looks uncomfortable in a Mandarin-speaking role. Much more in tune, as Tao’s hard-nosed but sympathetic aunt, is Lee, making a rare screen appearance after virtually retiring a decade ago.
Lensing of locations around Hekou by South Korean d.p. Jin Young-hwan (“Rainbow Trout,” “Lovers’ Concerto”) is consistently eye-pleasing, but not enough to compensate for the pic’s lack of a strong emotional center. Helmer Zhang’s original cut, which was much longer, has so far not appeared on DVD.