The Road Not Taken (China, 2018)

As a location for contemporary-set films, the vast plains of the Gobi Desert have been used to menacing effect in Gao Qunshu’s quasi-Western Wind Blast (2010) and Ning Hao’s black comedy No Man’s Land (2013), both of which had a series of life or death confrontations play out as protagonists crossed the famously arid landscape. There are some rough altercations in Tang Gaopeng’s first feature The Road Not Taken, too, but this is otherwise a leisurely jaunt with the desert mainly serving as an open space for bonding and redemption.

One of the travelers here is recently divorced Yong (Wang Xuebing) who is in debt to the local mob having borrowed heavily to set-up an ostrich farm. Hoping that this enterprise will sufficiently impress his ex-wife to renew their marriage, Yong has recklessly used the apartment that she is still living in as collateral. This means that the deed to the property will go to vicious mobster “Brother 5” (Wang Xufeng) should a payment be missed. When this very situation arises, “Brother 5” extends Yong a lifeline of sorts – he has to look after a kidnapped boy (Zhu Gengyou) until his father pays the ransom. It seems like a simple enough task, but a string of problems ensue when the unreliable Yong sets out on a spur of the moment journey to see his ex-wife with the boy along for the ride.

Although the evolving central dynamic is instigated by ruthless criminality, the film’s early stretch is less concerned with critiquing China’s opportunistic underbelly than establishing a humorous tone through the central dynamic. The rather sullen boy, who initially seems to be mute, raises laughs when he steals Yong’s truck only to swerve all over the road and tries to run away while naked from the waist down. Deadpan frivolity aside, Tang also instigates a sense of gradually mounting desperation. An introduction that finds Yong chasing an ostrich around the desert is at once farcical and meant to suggest that he is floundering in life, even if his determination to pull things together prevents him from realizing what is readily apparent to his ex-wife and the conniving “Brother 5”.

An endearingly scruffy Wang is in amiable, relatable form as the beleaguered farmer, pulling off a lead character who is as fundamentally decent as he is deeply flawed. The somewhat episode structure gives him a temporary sparring partner in Mei (Ma Yili), a fiercely independent trucker. Yong’s outburst upon discovering that the boy has performed poorly in a recent school test stems from both a growing concern for the youth and his need to bolster the impression that he is the boy’s ‘Uncle’. Within this blusterous display are pangs of conscience for becoming involved in a morally despicable plot, regardless of individual financial predicament.

When not dealing with the kidnapping angle, Tang touches on the transient lifestyles and makeshift roadside communities that define desert life. Although much less savagely grotesque in its representation than No Man’s Land, the film is similarly interested in how people eke out an existence in the middle of nowhere, mainly by providing services to whoever is passing through, sometimes resorting to ripping people off. Wang gets into some fisticuffs with “Brother 5”’s henchmen, but it’s the propensity for violence demonstrated by peripheral characters that gives the film its dark undercurrent. It’s a relatively lawless space where disagreements are settled by brutal headbutts and Mei has to contend with the unwanted attention of an emotionally stunted mechanic (Yue Xiaojun) whose advances overstep the mark. If these elements cause some tonal inconsistency, they at least offset the general predictability of the narrative, which requires a few contrivances to reach its inevitable destination.

Films shot in the Gobi Desert usually romanticize the landscape or accentuate it in a way that courts comparison with the splendor of Hollywood Westerns or the vivid  canvas of Sergio Leone. Instead, Guo Daming’s cinematography opts for a washed-out color scheme that makes moments of genuine human kindness all the more touching when set against this barren backdrop.

Obviously intended as a calling card for its director, The Road Not Taken is a modestly entertaining debut that served its purpose since it won the Best Film prize at the Shanghai Film Festival’s Asian New Talent Awards.