54th Chicago Int’l Film Fest #17: “The Road Not Taken” (China)

“The Road Not Taken” (China)
Directed by Gaopeng Tang

the_road_not_taken_-_publicity_-_h_2018A great film. Which is not a conclusion you’d think describes a film that takes place almost exclusively in the middle of the Gobi Desert, features a tenuous relationship between a boy and his captor, and, most impressively, comes from a first-time director. But it is what it is, a funny, heartbreaking, gorgeous, well-acted film that never-ever drags.

The story isn’t exactly original for an audience used to Hollywood story lines like “Logan” or, to a lesser extent “Rain Man”. But these characters are incredibly of their world. Their rhythms, humor, actions and beliefs are unique and idiosyncratic – only becoming “universal” via emotional comparison in the later stages of the film. As a result, it’s mesmerizing stuff. And the script is smart and specific, with a total economy of words.

The scenery, the vistas, and the accompanying photography are simply spectacular. No surprise, really. Director Tang was smart enough to hire Daming Guo to shoot it. I’m not sure how many of you were fortunate enough to see it, but he’s responsible for the glorious mountain photography in 2016’s gorgeous (if befuddling) “Soul On a String”. And here, he doesn’t disappoint. It’s even more impressive when you take in to account that while “String” took place in the lush foothills of the Chinese-Tibet border, “Road” is shot in the flat, drab, hues that encompass the Gobi and its villages. But instead of trying to overcompensate, Guo leans in…somehow making the beige sheen of the sand and sky seem….beautiful, after a time. In fact, when we do move in to cities and villages, you almost long for the quiet regularity of the desert once again.

There are really only three performances to discuss, as every other character outside of them plays a very specific role in the plot. Xuebing Wang (yet another veteran of the great 2015 noir thriller, “Black Coal Thin Ice”) gives one of the two or three best performances of the Festival by a male actor. His growth, emotional depth and charm make the film’s story soar. And the child along for the ride, Gengyou Zhu, is equally brilliant. Their chemistry flows, is never on a single axis, and is as human as it gets on-screen. Yili Ma, a major character with a tiny amount of screen time, makes the absolute most of it. Fierce and vulnerable in equal measure, you cannot keep your eyes off her.

Finally, composer Hongli Chen’s score is lovely and effective. It is also very sparse, so sparse, in fact, many other reviews seemed to think there was no music. They’re wrong…but perhaps that simply underscores the effectiveness of the film’s other components. It’s Chen’s first. Looking forward to the next.

One of the top three best made films of the 54th Festival, “The Road Not Taken” was easily my favorite cinema experience. Alas, it does not seem to have a U.S. release date at the moment, but it is worth seeking out, or placing an email alert for it via Fandango, Netflix or any other streaming service.

(Important note: no animals were injured in the filming of the movie. That’s something you’ll want to know going in due to a VERY short scene early in the film)

The trailer below has no English subs, but that’s for the best. It will give you a good idea of the film’s attributes while spoiling none of the story.

Written on 11/1/2018


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