In recent years there has been no shortage of
Chinese war epics. Every year several prominent directors stick their
names to one or other excessive big-budget affair where no expenses are
spared to recreate the largest battles in China's rich and sprawling
history of warfare. Ping He's Wheat may look like it fits this mold, but
actually it doesn't (at all). It's a remarkably small and humble film,
which is exactly where its true strength lies.
Rather than focus on the actual warfare, He directs his camera at a
village full of left-behind women. Year after year they have to survive
on their own while the man are waging war in nearby cities and villages.
Uncertain of their men's fate, the women go about their everyday lives,
relying on their shaman for information from the outside world. The
setup of Wheat reminded me a little of Hu Guan's Cow
(also a 2009 film), which offers a similar secluded view of warfare,
focusing on a small village tucked away amidst the mountains.
Out little village is greatly disturbed when two men are found in a
nearby riverbed. Identified as their own soldiers through wounds
inflicted by the adversary's weapons, these two men turn about to be
deserters of the adversary's army, left for deadafter they jumped into
the river. Looking at the somewhat troublesome start of the film, it's a
shame He gives away this piece of information early on as it could and
would've spiced things up a bit during the first half of the film.
But He doesn't keep his audience in the dark and focuses on how these
two men integrate with the rest of the villagers. With one of the two
men acting as a complete idiot though, I don't feel He made the right
decision there. The first half is centered around many dialogs and
features little to no action sequences, which makes the constant
over-acting of the dimwitted fellow a little hard to bear, especially as
he is quite prominently featured.
Visually He has everything under control. Standards are pretty high for
Chinese war epics, but He lives up to them pretty well. He does
differentiate himself with a handful of shots from directly above which
do make for some very nice views of the corn fields. The lighting is
particularly strong and the interior settings are lush and impressive.
If you're a fan of the wealthy and traditional Chinese styling, you're
gonna feel right at home.
The music is equally traditional, a combination of beautiful strings and
typical Chinese instruments. I've come to expect little more from a
film like this and I do like the music itself quite a bit, but I
wouldn't mind seeing a bit more variation in the scores used for films
like these, as they become a bit interchangeable after a while. It can
be a little dire if you can dream a soundtrack before even seeing a
trailer of a certain film.
As for the acting, Jue Huang does a good job as fierceless warrior. It's
Fan Bing Bing who's allowed to shine the most though, as the strong,
fearless mistress of the village who takes her job and responsibility
very seriously. The supporting cast is equally solid, the only bad apple
is Jiayi Du who takes his role a bit too far and becomes annoying
rather quickly, playing the village idiot. Part of the annoyance comes
from the character itself, but He should've downplayed him a little to
make his presence less visible.
Wheat knows a rather rough start. He gives away a bit too much at the
start of the film and the role of the village idiot gets too much
attention. Gradually things get better though and when halfway through
the film the village is attacked by bandits, raising some serious
suspicion around the story of our two men, Wheat turns into a very
amusing and remarkable little film, even gaining enough momentum to
warrant the beautiful yet somewhat sentimental ending.
Wheat is different from other Chinese war epics in the sense that it
keeps itself away from the actual battlefield and warfare, focusing more
on the people left behind. There are some mild yet impressive action
sequences in the second half, but they are definitely not the main
selling point here. If you're a fan of Cow then Wheat this is a sure
sell, but everyone looking for a more toned-down, stylish yet amusing
war film should have a go at it. Remember that the first half our is a
bit rough around the edges, things will get only better after that.
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