Sentimentalizing Ethnic Minorities
This movie adaptation is told from the point of view of the woman and encourages identification with her against the others. The movie adds a postscript, apparently without irony: “It happened long ago! We are lucky that times like that are gone for good. Such things have gone forever.”
By 1997, when Red River Valley was released, the Chinese film system had been cut off from state sponsorship and opened to the whims of capitalism. The studios had to struggle to reach a mass audience to finance their movies. One way to do this was to pander to their audience in a manner not too dissimilar from the propaganda of early Communist China. Red River Valley is shamelessly hackneyed material that plays on a society’s ingrained stereotypes and myths, elevated by an occasional triumph of craftsmanship.
Its story is a kind of Chinese Dances with Wolves, an historical frontier epic with Tibet standing in for the Native Americans. Once again, in his introduction, David Buckley misses the opportunity to discuss the relationship between Tibet and China and the way the majority Han Chinese have tended to sentimentalize the ethnic minorities in their country.
The story’s grand scope and its many characters allows it to touch on some interesting themes, which combines history and folk tales to discuss greed and prejudice at the turn of the twentieth century. It opens with several action scenes. A young Han woman named Snow Dawa (Ning Jing) is about to be sacrificed to a river god, but escapes and is rescued by an old Tibetan woman. While recuperating in the old woman’s yurt-like house, she falls in love with a wild horseman named Dewang (Shao Bing).
Meanwhile, two British explorers are almost killed in an avalanche, but are rescued by the villagers in a Tibetan fortress. One of them, the interpreter Jones (Paul H. Newman), stays with the Tibetans to study their lifestyle. The other, Colonel Rockman (Nicholas Love), returns later with an army to crush Tibet in the name of the empire. Snow Dawa and Dewang get caught up in the struggle.
The script, the acting, and the presentation are frequently ham-fisted throughout. As one character dies in battle he gasps, “War. Should you and I have been friends?” Some of the filmmaking is crude, as in the obvious use of stock footage in the avalanche scene. (This might be unfair for a movie with a budget significantly less than the typical Zhang Yimou production. And some of the nature photography is lovely.) There are serious continuity errors. There is the sense that the plot, based on a book by Peter Fleming, tried to cram in too many epic strands with disjointed and confusing results.
The British attempt at conquering Tibet is portrayed as an impossible Western dream. Jones says, “This immense land behind us is the Orient which we shall never conquer.” (This line comes at the end and appears to also serve as a good riddance and “screw you” before the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.) The movie is good on criticizing the hypocrisy of the British Empire, the way they used talk of “freedom” to justify themselves to the peoples that they conquered. The well-meaning Jones is dangerously naïve. He talks of “a pure innocence, a harmony between man and nature, a kind of freedom, an unchained beauty” of the Tibetans but is unable to help them in any tangible way.
However, overall the movie treats the Tibetans with a mixture of condescending bemusement and cheap mystical reverence. Dewang is almost a simpleton. The British and Han characters laugh and shake their heads at Buddhist and folk traditions and the use of folk stories often have a bogus New Age sheen.
There are notable similarities between Snow Dawa and the heroine of New Year Sacrifice. They are both sacrifices to a brutal and superstitious societal system and they fight hard to avoid their fate. The most resonant line of dialogue in Red River comes when Snow Dawa says, “In my next life I want to be a pig or a dog. I don’t want to be a girl again.”
However, as in New Year Sacrifice, the societal criticism in Red River Valley points firmly at an “other” and never at the self. The filmmakers go to great pains to conflate China and Tibet as simpatico cultures unified against the West. That China might have replaced Britain as a colonizer and threat to Tibet goes unmentioned.