Tuya’s Marriage (Music Box Films, NR)

tuyaswedding.jpgThe film works on a very human level because Wang neither romanticizes the Mongolian peasants nor overemphasizes the difficulties they face. Instead, he presents them as people doing the best they can in a world not entirely of their own creation, just like people all over the world.

 

Tuya (Yu Nan), the heroine of Quanan Wang’s film Tuya’s Marriage, is the backbone of her family. Her husband Bater (played, as all are characters except Tuya, by actors who have the same name as their characters) is disabled and her children are too young to be much help, leaving Tuya to perform almost all the work required to keep their sheepherding operation afloat. Then she suffers a back injury which leave her mobile but unable to continue to the heavy manual labor necessary to her family’s survival.

What’s a woman to do? In rural Mongolia, as in many other parts of the world, the answer is to seek a good marriage. The ink is barely dry on the divorce papers before Tuya is besieged by suitors, and they arrive in packs. Apparently no one proposes marriage alone in rural Mongolia; an entourage of friends and relatives is necessary. The clash between the formal nature of the proposal ritual and the modern lives led by some of the would-be Lotharios provides the opportunity for comedic moments, as does their sheer number: In one case, a group of hopefuls bound for Tuya’s house on motorcycles stops to ask directions from a rejected entourage riding away on horseback.

The competition soon boils down to two suitors: an urbanized ex-classmate (Baolier) who has made it big in the oil business, and a pleasant but hapless neighbor (Sen’ge). The film begins and ends with the same wedding ceremony, a traditional celebration whose emotional tenor is deliberately left ambiguous. There’s no guarantee of “happily ever after” in Tuya’s world.

Director Wang tells his story episodically, with outstanding location cinematography by Lutz Reitemeyer and sound by Peng Jiang that draws heavily on Mongolian folk music. The film works on a very human level (it won the Golden Bear for best film at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival) because Wang neither romanticizes the Mongolian peasants nor overemphasizes the difficulties they face. Instead, he presents them as people doing the best they can in a world not entirely of their own creation, just like people all over the world. And although the characters are not given to overt displays of affection, it’s obvious that family bonds run deep. Tuya insists that any suitor must agree to support her ex-husband, and his separation from the family leads rapidly to a suicide attempt. Tuya’s response, in which she threatens to annihilate herself and the children, leaves no doubt of the depth of her attachment to her family.

“Old versus new” is clearly a theme in Tuya’s Marriage (let’s just say that television is not associated with happy events, and gasoline-powered vehicles seem to break down with astonishing frequency), but it never becomes overbearing. Symbols of modernization, like the occasional reminders of the Chinese presence (the story is set in Inner Mongolia, which became part of China after World War II), are ultimately just one among many elements in the vast landscape of this film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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