'A Mongolian Tale," the new movie by Chinese director Xie Fei, looks like another sure-fire hit. While it is just starting to open in American theaters, it has already played at some film festivals and cinema clubs, and American audiences have loved it.
The filmmaker's previous US imports, "Girl From Hunan" and "The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls," are among the most acclaimed Chinese productions of recent years.
As the titles of his best-known movies indicate, Xie has a special interest in women as main characters. He likes exploring individual personalities and is fascinated with female situations - such as pregnancy and motherhood - that take on different forms influenced by social and cultural surroundings.
"A Mongolian Tale" centers on a Mongolian girl named Someyer and a Chinese boy named Beiyinpalica who grow up together in the home of Nai-Nai, a peasant woman who raises them.
Nai-Nai wants them to marry and start a family as soon as possible, but modern times have brought a change to Mongolian life: Instead of automatically becoming a shepherd like his ancestors, Beiyinpalica wants to get an education in a distant city. Returning years later as a trained musician, he discovers that Someyer is pregnant by an irresponsible neighbor.
Beiyinpalica leaves again and becomes a celebrated urban singer, whose songs recall the joys and pains of his early life in the countryside.
Someyer marries and has five children, working in a local school instead of following traditional nomadic life. She knows she will not have a family with Beiyinpalica. But when he pays a final visit, she asks that he send his children to her in future years, so she can care for them. The movie ends on this loving but poignant note.
"The movie is set in Mongolian places," Xie said in a recent interview, "but I think the theme is universal. A story about a young woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock can happen anywhere. The conflict in the film is between traditional Mongolian culture and modern society.... I wanted to compare the culture of the past with modern-day culture, and I wanted to show the need for keeping old virtues like kindness and tolerance."
The women of the story, Someyer and Nai-Nai, embody the conflicts Xie sees between traditional and contemporary ways. Someyer's pregnancy is considered scandalous by Beiyinpalica, and she herself is regretful about it, especially when it damages her relationship with him.
Old Nai-Nai shows a very different attitude, taking the situation completely in stride. She had grown up in an underpopulated region that valued new children too much for anyone to worry about the circumstances of their arrival. The disapproval felt by the younger characters is evidence of their entry into a modern sensibility more typical of China, which controls childbirth very rigidly, than of peasants raised on the Mongolian steppes.
Xie gained close familiarity with peasant life during the Cultural Revolution period, when his filmmaking career was interrupted by a forced move to a rural area of China, where he worked as a laborer in a "reeducation" program. Today he looks back on this experience with some fondness, since it taught him a great deal about aspects of Chinese life he would not have encountered in any other way.
Not wishing to rely on this knowledge alone, Xie did careful research, visiting Inner and Outer Mongolia three times. The film stars Mongolian actresses in the main female roles and the Mongolian-born singer Tengger, a big pop-music star in China and Taiwan, as Beiyinpalica.
Xie also studied the writing of Zhang Cheng-zhi, who adapted the film's screenplay from his own novel. "Zhang lived in Mongolia for four years," says Xie, "and while there he discovered that Mongolians have a great passion for children, and for life in general. In the film, this [passion] is portrayed most strongly through the grandmother.... It is also present in the novel, where she is always taking in stray dogs and sheep. That also represents the great passion for life that is part of the Mongolian tradition."
Xie drew other sorts of inspiration from novelist Zhang, as well. "He is unique in Chinese literature," the filmmaker says. "Nowadays a lot of authors write popular novels to make money, but he is the only one holding to the ideal of searching for beauty."
Judging from his recent films, Xie is following a similar path, working hard to make his stories artistically as well as dramatically compelling. The results have gained him a major place in China's motion-picture industry. In addition to filmmaking, he is vice-president of the Association of Chinese Film Directors and a professor in the Beijing Film Academy's directing department.
With so many credentials, Xie is in a good position to assess the current state of Chinese filmmaking. He acknowledges that his nation's government has hobbled screen artists by imposing forceful censorship rules that keep many movies out of production and limit the audiences of some that do get completed. Coproductions with filmmakers from Taiwan and Hong Kong have also diminished, partly because theaters there are more in love with Hollywood than ever, and devote their screens largely to American entertainments.
There is hope for the future, however, since television companies have money to spend and can often slide around censorship restrictions because such a huge amount of filmed material is needed.
Like other Chinese directors, Xie sees opportunities ahead despite present problems. On large screens or small, his career is certain to keep flourishing, especially if overseas audiences keep welcoming his work as enthusiastically as Americans are receiving "A Mongolian Tale."