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Wooden's Man Bride, The

Koch Lorber Films // Unrated // July 13, 2004
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted July 14, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Wooden Man's Bride (1994) by director Huang Jiangxin, is clearly a product of China's "Fifth Generation" of film makers, which includes the likes of Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine),Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), and Zhang Yimou (To Live). These directors were products of the Beijing Film Academy, which was re-opened following the 1970's cultural revolution. While still under a censor heavy regime, these film makers became known for their artistically beautiful work which managed to make comments about China's class system, traditions, and politics.

While en route to her wedding, a bride's (Wang Yan) caravan is attacked by a gang of bandits and she is abducted. One of the escorts, Kui (Chang Shih) tried in vain to escape with the young mistress and, feeling responsible for her well-being, sets out to rescue on his own. The bandits are impressed with his boldness and after he passes a near fatal test, they release the young mistress and the two return to the village of her groom, a member of the well off Lui family.

However, before the two ever meet, an accident (an explosion while retrieving his gun) takes the groom's life. The family matriarch, Madame Liu (Wang Yumei), insists that the wedding proceed with a wooden statue in place of her son. In return for his service, Kui is given a job at the Lui's soy mill and he and his family have a security they haven't known. The young mistress is not content to live out her life in fidelity with an effigy, and soon she and Kui find themselves attracted to one another, falling in love, and it is a taboo the community will not accept.

In the films' opening shots of the caravan of camels trudging across the desert, red banners waving in the breeze, and the bride dressed in red from head to toe, including a veil covering her face, I thought I was in a Zhang Yimou film. You can draw those similarities even further, the reluctant bride who bristles at the role she is put into reminds one of Raise the Red Lantern and the love story defying the cultural conventions is like Ju Dou. Huang Jiangxin and Zhang Yimou both clearly like to present none too kind observations about the adherence to outdated customs and do not have a fondness for some Chinese traditions. They both attempt to uncover some truths and shed light on how, especially women, had an unfair placement in society.

The story is very straightforward and the film is carried by understated scenes reflecting the surface simplicity of their life but with the underlying ebb of repressed passions. One of the most memorable scenes is Huang Jiangxin's somber direction of the actual wedding march, which the composition and music all conveys it more like a horror sequence than a celebration. It is a very well put together film, though maybe lacking the emotional impact of (I've said it once, why not say it again?) a Zhang Yimou film.

The DVD: Koch Lorber

Picture: Full-screen, 4X3. As the opening title credits roll, the film is in wide-screen, but it quickly goes to the cinema nut's greatest enemy, the cropped full-screen transfer. I cannot recall if I've picked up a Koch release before (odds are, I have) but even the trailers on this disc were in full-screen, which can only lead me to assume that this is a common practice for them.

So, based on the quality, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this was taken from a tape. It is a real shame, because you can really sense the info you are missing on this well-composed movie. The image is grainy, soft, the colors are muted, and the trasnfer has some shimmering. Honestly, judging it by image alone, there is probably no reason you couldn't buy or rent a vhs instead of the DVD because the definition is basically the same.

Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo, Mandarin language with optional (yellow) English subtitles. I was very surprised to find the film had a surround option. I rightly assumed it was probably going to be a pretty low key affair, and really the surround only gives the soundtrack a push. The ambient fx are so subtle- it is a pretty quiet film- I didn't really notice them mixed in any dynamic way. Actually, the film has some low budget faults in the sound fx area, some bits that are out of synch and reliance on stock noises, like the horse hoofbeats which sound like they are on cobblestone when the horses onscreen are on sand.

Extras: Two trailers for the film plus trailers for six other Koch releases.

Conclusion: Unfortunately this transfer is just not up to the standards of its potential art house foreign cinema loving audience. It is a shame. Because it is such a neat little drama, sure to please Chinese film fans, I will be kind and give it a "rent it."

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