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If Raise the Red Lantern had ended with the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry, it would have been something like The Wooden Man’s Bride, a Chinese western that adds a righteous postscript to what could otherwise be another tragic Zhang Yimou indictment of patriarchy. In director Huang Jianxin’s version of what is now a common Chinese art-film scenario, the bride has a champion as well as an oppressor.
Bride begins with the familiar pre-wedding procession across the familiar dusty steppes of early-20th-century China; that the riders are on camelback is the only clue that the film is set a little farther west than its predecessors. Suddenly, the bridal party is attacked by bandits. The resolute Kui (Chang Shih), the servant assigned to transport the bride (Wang Lan), carries her away from the marauders, but they ultimately catch up. To save Kui’s life, the bride surrenders to the outlaws.
News of the abduction convulses the groom’s household, and in the panic the groom manages to kill himself. Though it’s a task far beyond his station, Kui decides to rescue the bride, and heads for the bandits’ compound. There he finds the gang’s leader, Tang (Taiwanese pop singer Kao Mingjun), playing the falsetto role in a Chinese opera. After Kui passes a test of daring, Tang approvingly releases his prisoner, who Kui takes to Madame Liu (Wang Yumei), who was to be her mother-in-law.
As might be expected, Kui has delivered the bride from one prison to another. Unwilling to forgo a new daughter-in-law merely for lack of a groom, Madame Liu satisfies herself that the bride’s virginity is intact and then has her married to a statue representing her dead son. Though her principal duty is to serve her mother-in-law, the bride (now called “young mistress” by the household servants) must also care for her “husband,” and must sleep next to him. (This arrangement, which provides young mistress with the most unfeeling of all the cruel husbands in “Fifth Generation” cinema, is not based on an actual Chinese tradition.)
Understandably, young mistress prefers her human rescuer to her wooden spouse. Adultery, however, is punishable by death, and Kui—hired by Madame Liu to make tofu—is hardly in the position to challenge his employer. Perhaps only a bandit chief would dare oppose the old woman, whose lectures on the primacy of reputation are amply illustrated by the misery she brings to her daughter-in-law.
Elegantly composed and shot by Zhang Xiaoguang, Bride achieves a visual grandeur that frequently recalls Zhang Yimou’s films. (Wang even bears a resemblance to the latter’s regular leading lady, Gong Li.) But are Huang and scripter Yang Zhengguang emulating Zhang (whose work the former has dismissed as “designer ethnic films”) or sending him up? Are Bride‘s incongruous and melodramatic elements concessions to the backers of the film—made in China with Taiwanese money—or a spoof of the genre?
Yang provides a few moments that are clearly meant to be comic, as well as many that are far from naturalistic. Some of his twists, notably the lack of actual patriarchs in a household rigorously dedicated to male domination by Madame Liu, are effective. But in stressing Kui’s heroic transformation over the fate of young mistress (whose very lack of a name must be some sort of genre joke), Yang has merely traded the male chauvinism of pre-Mao China for that of the Hong Kong action film.
Traditionally, John Sayles films have been topical, urban, and well-meaning, with the emphasis on the latter; sometimes their very earnestness becomes poignant. With the bayou-set Passion Fish, though, the writer/director/editor endorsed the restorative power of a quiet life by the water, a prescription he renews with The Secret of Roan Inish. Though set shortly after World War II, the film’s mythic sensibility seems far more remote; this is Sayles’ most complete escape from New York.
Like many such stories, Secret‘s tale (adapted from a 1957 Rosalie K. Fry novella, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry) commences with the death of a parent, the mother of Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney). Told that the dirty city is no place for a 10-year-old girl, Fiona’s father sends her to stay with his parents, Tess and Hugh (Eilenn Colgan and Mick Lally), who live in a rented house from which the keen-eyed can glimpse their former residence, Roan Inish (“seal island”). The Coneellys lost more than a home when they left Roan Inish; Fiona’s infant brother Jamie, left on the beach in a seaworthy cradle, floated away the day the family departed the island.
A budding detective, Fiona soon finds people who will tell her the family legends her grandparents leave unsaid. Her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan) reports the rumors that Jamie is still alive; a more distant cousin, Tadhg (John Lynch), imparts an even more dubious tale: that the Coneellys are descended from the union of a rebellious man and a selchie, a creature that can transform herself from seal to woman (and back again). According to this fable, the seals that carefully observe Fiona as she travels by boat are her cousins too.
Since Secret champions the notion that people should keep touch with their mythic legacies, it’s no surprise that at least some of the improbable stories are demonstrated to be true. As befits the film’s fairy-tale scenario, it’s the children, Fiona especially, who save the family. Convinced that the Coneellys must return to Roan Inish, Fiona enlists Eamon to restore the island’s cottages in preparation. (This development also closely parallels another “secret” parable of renewal after parental death, The Secret Garden.) When Fiona and Eamon bring their astonished grandparents back to the island, the seals approve.
This is all pleasant enough, if not quite the transcendent experience required to make truly enchanting its Irish variant of magic realism. The performances are confident, and first-timers Courtney and Sheridan prove capable of the challenge of carrying many of the scenes. Secret is a warm experience, which is perhaps all that was intended, and those fond of seals or luminous natural-light cinematography (the latter by Haskall Wexler) will find plenty to engage the eye.
Secret is not so rich as Passion Fish, however, because its bucolic ideal never really engages its urban rival. The depiction of Fiona’s big-city experience is perfunctory, and the film rushes back to Ireland’s west coast, although it’s not in any hurry once it gets there. Sayles’ tale hints at larger conflicts—Fiona’s grandparents are evicted to make way for wealthy people who want their cottage for summer getaways, and the ancestor who mated with the selchie refused to speak English in school—but doesn’t develop them. After such overreaching projects as City of Hope, the director’s narrower focus is well-advised, yet Secret ultimately seems a little too modest.