|Hong he 2008 China Red River|
The film didn't make a big splash and seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of the many films that were produced to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Communist China. I'm not entirely sure of what connection this film has to that celebration because many of the cultural particulars were lost on me. The film is set near the Red River at the border of China's Yunnan Province and Vietnam. Problem is, Zhang is a Mainland Chinese woman playing a young Vietnamese girl and the other three stars are Hong Kong actors. The dialog seems to drift between some Mandarin dialect and broken Vietnamese—phonetically spoken by the Hong Kong actors—and I couldn't keep a firm grip on who was supposed to be Chinese and who was supposed to be Vietnamese or when things were supposed to be happening in China, or in Vietnam. Things become clearer as the film goes on but while I was working through it, I was confused.
Setting all that aside, Red River is also a rather sweet gender-swapped Oedipal love story interrupted by gangsters. The story starts off with a brief prologue set in the Vietnam war era seventies. A little girl, Ah Tao, witnesses her father being blown to bits by a land mine when they're flying a kite together. Big Bummer, that. It then jumps to the nineties with Zhang playing Ah Tao, all grown up but suffering mentally from the trauma. She's working as a cleaner in a massage parlor (in China) owned by her aunt who has a friend, Ah Ha (Cheung), who happens to look a lot like Ah Tao's father. Ah Ha discovers Ah Tao has a marketable singing voice so he's nice to her while trying to make money off her by charging people a couple dollars to Karaoke with her. The aunt also has a wealthy and cruel gangster client who's pissed off because he had a leg blown off in the Vietnam War, and he takes an interest in ah Tao because, since she's mentally challenged, she doesn't know enough to avoid him. Ah Tao's affection is for Ah Ha, because he's nice to her and he doesn't kill people for a living—and the other thing—so she runs off with him. This angers the gangster who chases after them to get her back. Tragedy and trouble ensue. Things end sadly.
So much for the story. I really like Zhang's performance. Playing a mentally challenged person is a tough role. More often than not actors resort to obnoxiousness and slobbering to get the point across. Zhang plays it sweet and clean. A Variety reviewer calls Zhang's performance too "one-dimensionally wide-eyed" to be convincing. She is wide-eyed, to be sure, and she may be one dimensional, but her dimension comes off as childlike freedom, unencumbered by the nuances of modern bullshit living that clobber any hope for happiness. That's the beauty of the way Zhang plays it. Her handicap is a freedom to approach the world in a state of honest and hopeful wonderment. She's seems happy scrubbing floors and singing for people, and Zhang does a fantastic job bringing that to life.
I may object in principle to the film business habit of having drop-dead gorgeous women with perfect skin, hair, teeth, and nails playing mentally retarded Vietnamese refugees scrubbing floors in massage parlors—but not in practice. Zhang is both beautiful and talented. She's pleasant to look at and she does a good job.
Summary: A Tao (Zhang Jingchu) living near Red River at the Vietname/Chinese border, is a mentally handicapped Vietnamese girl due to witnessing the violent death of her father, who stepped on a land mine while recovering her kite.
After she has grown up, she moved to China to work as a cleaner for A Shui (Loletta Lee), who is her deceased father's sister and runs a massage parlor. A Shan (Nick Cheung), a former theatre actor, operates a road side karaoke in town and vaguely resembles A Tao's father. A Tao soon becomes attracted to him.
Boss Shaba (Danny Lee Sau-Yin), a regular big spender at Ah Shui's massage parlor, suffered injuries and lost his lower right leg during the Vietnam War. He has earned his money by parallel importing American cigarettes. Due to his temper and appearance, no massage girl wants to serve him. Shaba then asked for A Tao who did not know him and was not afraid. Shaba thus takes a liking to A Tao.
Upon discovering A Tao's singing and crowd pulling abilities, A Shan offered to take her off A Shui's hands, which Ah Shui agrees for 200 renminbi plus a temporary resident permit for A Tao. When Shaba found out that A Tao is no longer at the massage parlour, he sent his men to get her back for him.