Aside from the occasional films that slip below or through the government radar, Chinese cinema appears to often suffer from the same nationalistic self-obsession that gripped Australian cinema in the 1980s, where it seemed every film needed to exalt national identity through rural tales of sheep dogs, criminals, horses, criminals on horses, etc. Rural China is not just a common backdrop for Chinese films but its cultural exponents are a crucial focus for many of its stories. Hua Yao Bride In Shangri-la, while uncommonly a very light film, still has its story entrenched in the rural milieu of the Chinese countryside.
Hua Yao Bride is essentially a film about characters, and not so much about plot, which makes for an unpredictable film-watching experience. While the film adopts some conventional and unadventurous plot structure, the elements themselves are introduced rather haphazardly and some are even left unaddressed and unresolved. But this happens to be a good thing, working positively for the film and lending it a refreshing tone to what could have been a rather bland cinematic experience. Visually, the Yunnanese countryside which forms the backdrop to this story is a stunning part of China and beautiful to look at throughout the film.
Rising star Zhang Jingchu (Seven Swords, Peacock) plays the rebellious Fengmei who is quite obviously the central focus of this film. Her performance won her “Best Newcomer” at China’s Huabiao Awards, which is strange here given that her character comes across a little zealously overacted compared with her more convincing role in Peacock. The film immediately sets her up to be the stubborn but endearing free-spirit but presumes a little too much of its audience in following along with her cute tantrums and ungraceful “commoner” nature which, unfortunately, was a source for most of the humour in the film. While it’s not trying to be a Pretty Woman, the film seems to be trying to invoke that same “Awww… shucks” sentiment from its viewers. Yin Xiaotian, who plays A-Long, does a barely adequate job of playing the husband who finds that he is unable to control either his wife or really much of anything that happens around him. The choice of casting pale-skinned actors in the roles of hard-working villagers did not help towards its sense of realism, unless you prefer your skin tones to be a little more “Bollywood”. It was also difficult to get into the characters’ heads in this film and fully understand their motivations, though apparently getting drunk and dancing on loosely-tiled roofs is the best way to deal with your woes. And why did he pull that TV antenna from his parents’ roof anyway?
Overall, the film feels quite roughly assembled and a little naïve, resulting in the feeling that it was not quite finished. This is not an ambitious film, but its simplicity is part of its escapist charm. It’s a light entertaining love story that also questions the survival of traditional customs in a modern developing China, whose culture is changing more rapidly than any other country in Asia.