Friday, June 15, 2018

DWF ’18: Hometown on the Cloud

It is time for Meet the Parents, Naxi style. Luo Li is finally going home to meet her fiancé Mu Shu’s parents in Lijang, deep within Yunnan province. Unfortunately, they are still rather attached to his ex, A Mei, who also happens to be his betrothed, according to Naxi custom. It is awkward for her, but Mu Shu’s sister Mu Yu helps take some of the heat off her when she brings home a foreigner fiancée. Cultures and family members clash in Zhang Chunhe & Wang Lei’s Hometown on the Cloud, which screens tonight as part of the Spotlight: China! sidebar at this year’s Dances With Films.

Luo Li is a student of Naxi culture. That is how she met Mu Shu. In recent years, he has made his fame and fortune in Beijing as a modern sculptor, incorporating traditional Naxi elements into his work. His parents really ought to be more open to her, but they are emotionally attached to A Mei. Working as the village school teacher, she has coached the village children to several victories in traditional folk singing tournaments. Basically, she is Heidi, without the goat.

Alas, Mu Shu’s parents and just about everyone else in the village bitterly resents Mu Shu for breaking off with A Mei. To make amends, he agrees to go through the ancient decoupling ritual, even though that would seem to make her embarrassment even more public. Not that Mu Yu’s fiancé would know. As a foreigner, he will have to make himself scarce, to prevent tainting the ceremony.

Zhang & Wang capture the staggering beauty of Lijang as well as the distinctive colors and rhythms of Naxi culture, but there narrative hits some weird notes (starting with the implied notion the best way to honor Naxi culture is by commoditizing it). Nevertheless, it offers an intriguing window into an under-represented ethnic minority.

Our resilient Luo Li has real star potential and veteran character actor Zhao Xiaoming is suitably craggy and crabby as Mu’s father. Frankly, the cast is quite professional and polished despite the film’s obvious independent status—even produced outside the [embattled but experienced] Beijing indie network.

Hometown looks terrific and it is generally well-meaning. It has been a struggle for many minority cultures to survive in China, especially during the Cultural Revolutionary, so it is nice to see Zhang & Wang helping to preserve it on film. At times, Zhang’s screenplay drifts into melodramatic terrain, but he and his co-helmer maintain a brisk pace. Recommended as cinematic tourism (with an attractive cast), Hometown on the Cloud screens today (6/15), as part of the 2018 Dances With Films.

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