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River Road

家在水草丰茂的地方 (Jia Zai Shui Cao Feng Mao de Difang)

2014103 mins|Director Li Ruijun 李睿珺


intro

When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, two young Uigur brothers belonging to a Buddhist minority group of traditional nomadic pastoralists in Gansu Province, north-west China, set off on camelback in search of their father, who they believe is herding sheep on the distant summer pastures. They follow a dried-up river bed through rugged, inhospitable terrain and have a number of strange experien...

When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, two young Uigur brothers belonging to a Buddhist minority group of traditional nomadic pastoralists in Gansu Province, north-west China, set off on camelback in search of their father, who they believe is herding sheep on the distant summer pastures. They follow a dried-up river bed through rugged, inhospitable terrain and have a number of strange experiences, in the course of which they lose much of their childhood naivety and become more aware of the greater complexity and psychological depth of adult experience. Although they survive a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey, their quest ends in disappointment and disillusionment when they find that their father is no longer a traditional herdsman but an illegal gold-panner, and that their imagined idyll of the summer pastures has been ruined by the illegal mining industry and the coming of industrialisation to remote Gansu.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

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screening notes

context

River Road has a two-fold socio-economic context:- 1.) The decline of nomadic pastoralism and the traditional way of life associated with it in many parts of north and north-west China, and the consequent decline of traditional ethnic minority cultures and extended family living; 2.) The problems associated with childhood in social settings where parents, especially fathers, are largely absent, an...

River Road has a two-fold socio-economic context:- 1.) The decline of nomadic pastoralism and the traditional way of life associated with it in many parts of north and north-west China, and the consequent decline of traditional ethnic minority cultures and extended family living; 2.) The problems associated with childhood in social settings where parents, especially fathers, are largely absent, and young children are compelled to rely on their own resources and left to adjust to the adult world with little by way of guidance or protection. It highlights the psychological upheavals and disruptions experienced by young children as well as adults compelled to go through the current era of rapid social, economic and cultural transition from traditional societies to post-socialist modernity with little or no adult guidance, and questions the effect of China's breakneck drive towards modernity on the economic security, cultural integrity and psychological well-being of some of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in Chinese society.

The Director Li Ruijun (b. Gansu Province, 1983) began to study painting and music when he was a teenager, but subsequently graduated from an institute of management. For several years now he has been working mainly as a TV director. His feature debut The Summer Solstice (Xiazhi, 2007) was screened in several film festivals both inside and outside China. His other feature is Old Donkey (Lao lütou, 2010), a very powerful reflection on old age. All Li Ruijun’s films to date show his persistent concern for the problems of ageing and the plight of the elderly in modern Chinese society, his preoccupation with the ultimate meanings of life and death, and a deep, abiding affection for his native province of Gansu, its people and their traditional rural way of life.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

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synopsis & relevance

Variously described by Western critics as a coming-of-age drama, an ‘ecological parable’ and ‘the most compelling climate change movie yet’, River Road is, as its title implies, a kind of road movie, but a road movie with a difference. The protagonists are not drugs-and-testosterone-fuelled young men but two young boys, their preferred means of locomotion are not motor bikes or fast cars but long-...

Variously described by Western critics as a coming-of-age drama, an ‘ecological parable’ and ‘the most compelling climate change movie yet’, River Road is, as its title implies, a kind of road movie, but a road movie with a difference. The protagonists are not drugs-and-testosterone-fuelled young men but two young boys, their preferred means of locomotion are not motor bikes or fast cars but long-haired Bactrian camels – indeed, for most of the film there are no motor vehicles to be seen anywhere – and the ‘road’ is not a metalled road at all but a dried-up river bed on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. It is also a drama about the difficulties, deprivations and dangers of being a child in rural China, the often painful relationship between children and (largely absent) fathers, and the pain of having to come to terms with the shattering of childhood dreams and the shock of discovering the adult world as it really is. When left without anyone to look after them during a school vacation, two Uigur brothers with little in the way of brotherly love to share set off on camelback in search of their father, who they believe is away on the steppes for the summer months, herding sheep and cattle in the traditional semi-nomadic pastoral way typical of north-western China. They follow a largely dried-up river bed which they believe will lead them to the summer pastures. After a long journey and many strange adventures, they do eventually find their father, but instead of herding sheep and cattle on the steppe, he is part of an illegal gold-panning operation in Gansu. He has given up his traditional livelihood for the slim chance of getting rich quickly, and when they discover this, the boys’ sense of disillusionment and betrayal is almost too much to bear.

River Road is a poignant study of the decline of traditional nomadic pastoralism in north-western China and of the whole way of life which went with it, and a powerful psychological exploration of childhood and its inevitable end in disenchantment, with moments in which the film moves onto a deeper spiritual plane and delves into the Chinese collective unconscious in its relations to Buddhism, ancient Chinese history and culture. The cinematography combines a harsh, melancholy realism with dream-like sequences which suggest a descent into both the personal and the collective unconscious. The imagery of the vast empty spaces of the Chinese north-west, with its bleak, semi-arid rugged terrains, its ruined and half-buried ancient cities, rock-hewn temples and traces of long-forgotten civilisations and cultures, is not easily forgotten, and there is also a highly evocative use of traditional music and ambient sound.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

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cinematography

The cinematography combines a harsh, melancholy realism with dream-like sequences which suggest a descent into both the personal and the collective unconscious. The imagery of the vast empty spaces of the Chinese north-west, with its bleak, semi-arid rugged terrains, its ruined and half-buried ancient cities, rock-hewn temples and traces of long-forgotten civilisations and cultures, is not easily ...

The cinematography combines a harsh, melancholy realism with dream-like sequences which suggest a descent into both the personal and the collective unconscious. The imagery of the vast empty spaces of the Chinese north-west, with its bleak, semi-arid rugged terrains, its ruined and half-buried ancient cities, rock-hewn temples and traces of long-forgotten civilisations and cultures, is not easily forgotten, and there is also a highly evocative use of traditional music and ambient sound.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

Show more

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