Tuya’s Marriage

Music Box Films
Wang Quanan/China 2006

The setting of inner Mongolia looms over Tuya’s Marriage, winner of the Golden Bear at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. It shapes every facet of director Wang Quanan’s latest production and forcefully impacts the lives being depicted. There, a barren desert’s sand dunes stretch to the horizon, and survival remains a constant struggle. Nothing comes easy in such a harsh, sparsely populated environment. One of the great feats of Wang’s film is its evocation of just how starkly time can stop and material concerns melt away when one lives somewhere that demands a constant fear of the natural world and its wrath, in this case demonstrated by monumental sand storms and the overwhelming scarcity of water supplies.

Though the narrative advances slowly, Wang (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lu Wei) generates a real sense of the milieu’s particular rhythms. The film achieves a great deal of its impact by establishing the tumultuous, withdrawn setting and then subsequently depicting the steadfast, unavoidable encroachment of modernity and its destructive forces into the lives of the already overburdened characters. No mere cultural curiosity, the picture also tells a story rife with palpably universal emotions, and it’s anchored by what must be deemed an extraordinary lead performance.

Bookended with images of Tuya (Nan Yu) sobbing in a wedding dress, the film chronicles her struggle to support her crippled older husband Bater (the amateur actor’s real name) and young children by running their desert home. In addition to all the domestic handiwork she regularly journeys to and from the sole distant water source. When she suffers an injury and it becomes apparent that she can no longer keep up with the grueling schedule, Tuya and her husband determine it important that they divorce so that she can find someone to perform the requisite hard labor. Yet, to win her any suitor must acquiesce to her one inexorable condition: agree to house and support Bater as well.

To convey the story’s dramatic effect, Wang relies on long takes and extended moments of silence jarringly punctuated with intense bursts of emotion. There’s not a tremendous amount of dialogue, and the actors (most of whom – other than Yu – are first-timers) deliver what’s there in appropriately hushed, tired tones. Very often the filmmaker is content to let the landscape do the talking, and one shot of Tuya frantically searching for her son amidst a blinding, all-encompassing storm starkly conveys the source of the family’s desperation. Thematically, the screenplay presents a fairly devastating portrait of the physical and psychological costs of emasculation and the challenges of the forced reworking of conventional gender roles within the depicted society. It also evocatively parallels the primal nature of life in the desert with the equally insurmountable difficulties posed by the unforgiving facets of modern, bureaucratically controlled existence.

At the same time, beneath the unhurried exterior and its depictions of Tuya’s deceptively simple day-to-day routine, the movie negotiates a wealth of complex sentiments that constantly evolve in the characters. These brew so resolutely, and can be seen so clearly in the anguished faces at hand, that the periodic outbursts of feeling hold considerable power. In most movies, an extended scene in which an entire family sits and sobs would feel forced and melodramatic. Here, it organically emerges from the repressive constraints, and the profound frustrations, felt by Tuya and Bater. As the former, Nan ensures the success of Tuya’s Marriage by embracing the character’s conflicted nature and taking great pains to present as fully rounded a portrait as possible. She exudes the charisma one usually associates with a movie star. She makes the most restrained and inactive moments – the ones requiring the most patience and steadfast attentiveness – worth the effort.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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