Red River Valley
directed by Feng Xiaoning
(China Century, 1996;
Knight Mediacom, 2003)

Red River Valley is one DVD in a series of Chinese films being released by the CCC (Celebration of Chinese Cinema). Their intent is to introduce English speakers to movies that have rarely, if ever, been seen outside of China. Directed by Feng Xiaoning at the Shanghai Film Studio, Red River Valley is part tragic love story, part war epic.

The focus of the film is Tibet as it was a century ago. The opening scenes depict ritualistic sacrifice to the gods. Han villagers are seen casting livestock into a raging river in hopes of assuaging the cause of a draught that has plagued their locale. Eventually, the villagers work their way up to human sacrifice. Before main character Snow Dawa (Ying Zhen) can be tossed in to the drink, she is saved by her brother. During their daring escape, she ends up in the river anyway. Again, Snow Dawa is rescued, but this time by an old Tibetan woman.

For the rest of the first hour, we see this young Han girl adapt easily to life in the steppes. The old woman has taken Dawa in as if she were her own blood relative. The lifestyle is basic and perhaps difficult, but the backdrop is breathtaking. Not to mention, Dawa has fallen in love with a local livestock herder (Shao Bing). But things are not all rosy. She has competition for his love from the local chief's daughter (Ning Jing). Unwittingly, Dawa one day discovers a pair of Englishmen on a "scientific expedition" who were caught up in an avalanche. Once rescued, they are allowed to go free by the authorities. One promptly retreats to India while the younger, more scholarly of the two remains behind for a time. Quite like Dawa, he falls in love with the landscape, people and lifestyle erroneously described by the West as uncivilized.

In the second hour, the viewer sees that saving two lives ultimately costs more than a thousand. The foreigners return with an army. The English plan to expand their empire in this last unclaimed territory before the Russians succeed in doing the same. Their pretext is to force the Tibetans to honor a treaty the British made with the Chinese regarding trade in the region. The Tibetans have refused to honor a treaty they didn't sign. The film gets fairly graphic as the British forces overwhelm the Tibetans with their superior firepower. I don't want to give away the end of the movie, so let me just say that karma catches up with all the characters involved.

Red River Valley has a lot going for it. The best aspect of the film is the cinematography. Shot entirely in Tibet, the landscape is very beautiful. Knowing that film does a bad job of projecting the majesty of scenery you see with your own eyes, the viewer can easily imagine how awe-inspiring the Himalayas must be in person. Red River Valley also does a good job of projecting a lot of emotion. The viewer can empathize with the plight of Tibetan people, as well as relate to the love connections between the individual characters. I liked the fact that for at least a short time, it seemed that people, regardless of their background (Tibetan, Han Chinese or English) can live together in peace and harmony if they wished. More powerful, however, is the despair caused by senseless death whether it be from ritualistic sacrifice, war or suicide.

Unfortunately, Red River Valley contains a number of flaws. While Hollywood can certainly be blamed for pro-U.S., one-sided stories, this film has its share of Chinese propaganda. There is a scene that comes to mind of the local chief describing Tibet as one finger on the hand of China as if it has always been that way. (Yet earlier in the film, the Tibetans are saying they won't honor a treaty signed between the Chinese and British. Hmmmm).

The war scenes are intended to be serious, but I had to chuckle on several occasions. If you have ever seen the 1939 film Gunga Din, you will understand what I'm about to describe. On several occasions, simple six-shooters fire at least a dozen bullets in rapid succession without any reloading necessary. Also, a character might fire his weapon first to the right and then sweep his arm to his left, firing all the while. Switch to the enemy from the perspective of the shooter and watch the guy on the left drop, then the one on the right, followed immediately by the soldier in the middle. The wind on the Tibetan plateau must be very chaotic!

My main issue has to do with the spoken and written dialogue. Told mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles, the film also includes quite a bit of English dialogue (making it, perhaps, more accessible to viewers who do not care to read while watching a movie). Unfortunately, the CCC apparently did not view their DVDs after they put subtitles on them. The bottom line of text was cut in half so that I could only see the top portion of the letters (assuming they weren't off the left and right sides of the screen all together). The young Englishman's voice also changed twice in the film. His accent changed tone and more noticeably acquired a heavy Scottish burr for a few minutes both times. I can only imagine the dialogue changed after filming and the original actor was not around to overdub his work.

Other actors in the film include Buobuji, Paul H. Newman and Nicholas Love. Red River Valley has many reasons to recommend it -- the background view being the most prominent. It is also refreshing to see a film in which the white guy is the baddie for once. But for you nitpickers, there are going to be too many annoying aspects to allow you to enjoy the film for what it has to offer. If the CCC would improve the quality of the subtitles before release, that would help a lot!

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 10 January 2004

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