Located in the northern region of China, Inner Mongolia is an autonomous area with an economy that is largely based on farming, and a population comprised of Han Chinese, with a substantial Mongol minority. Those who assume that this a region of wide open spaces with a culture that is cut-off from the rapid development that characterises much of China may be surprised to learn that Inner Mongolia does actually have a film industry: the recent Latitude 52 (2012) addresses the ideological tension between the Soviet Union and China in the late 1960s, although such local productions are still relatively rare. Other films to be located in the region have included international co-productions with a focus on Inner Mongolia’s turbulent history, such as Close to Eden (1992) and Mongol (2007). In terms of mainland production, Mongolian Ping Pong (2005) is the charming tale of a young boy who learns about the titular sport, while The Love Songs of Tiedan (2012) looks at the realities of rural life in Shanxi province in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, where relations with the Mongolian community over the nearby border are becoming more significant. However, the most moving portrait of the region is arguably found in Wang Quan’an’s drama Tuya’s Marriage, which won the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007 but subsequently received limited art-house exposure. It’s an anthropological study of the struggles of a devoted wife that takes place in a tight-knit community which has been largely resistant to modernisation.
Tuya (Yu Nan) is a shepherdess living in particularly desolate part of the region whose daily existence is spent dealing with duties and problems, some of which should not really be her responsibility. Aside from raising two children, Tuya has to attend to the family flock, as her husband Bater has severely injured himself while digging a well, and his now unable to work. She also provides counsel to her neighbour, Senge, who frequently drinks himself to a stupor because his wife keeps sleeping with other women: Tuya listens to his troubles, advises him to get a divorce, then passes out from tiredness. It’s a routine of hard work and attentiveness to others that cannot be sustained, a predicament that Bater is fully aware of. He tells Tuya that she needs to find a new husband, providing that the eventual partner is able to provide for his wife, offspring, and initial spouse. This is actually a fairly sensible idea, as Tuya is well-regarded locally, not only for her strong work ethic, but also for her beauty, and it is not long before potential suitors are coming to offer their hand in marriage. The most suitable candidate seems to be Baolier, a former classmate of Tuya who is divorced, wealthy, and willing to pay for Bater to reside in a nursing home where he will receive the necessary care. However, there is more of a connection between Tuya and Senge, who seems to be waiting for the right time to express his affections.
Tuya’s Marriage is a delicate piece of neo-realism, with the poetic quality of the landscape serving as a spellbinding canvas for the tribulations of rural life in a region that makes great demands of its inhabitants. Wang pays respect to the perseverance of the local people and the warmth of their community, but also shows how a certain way of living is becoming increasingly unmanageable, while solutions that seem practical enough are prone to causing familial rupture. This is a place where a bottle of liquor is still regarded as the best medicine for a dislocated back, where one bad business decision can lead to poverty, and violent confrontations can suddenly erupt between friends. Bater has trouble adjusting to nursing home life, Tuya comes to question her choice, and Senge tries to make his case as a second husband by finishing the well, although he will need to divorce a wife of whom he is deeply afraid. Just as everything seems to be conveniently resolved, at least in terms of Tuya’s emotional needs, the film ends on a note of uncertainty that suggests bumps in the road ahead for the heroine and her family. The closing shot of the previously reserved Tuya in a moment of private heartbreak speaks volumes about a society that makes choices based on tradition or survival. Wang mostly cast local actors, which adds to the authenticity of his beautifully realised regional portrait, while Yu is quietly commanding in a difficult central role defined by culturally specific resoluteness.