The joint efforts of a Chinese director, a Franco-Korean production team and Mongolian locations results in Desert Dream, a kindly, well intentioned but over-extended allegory which spreads itself thinly over slightly more than two hours.
Zhang Lu's follow-up to his festival hit Grain In The Ear deals once again with displaced nationals but in a different context. There are also several ecological and political angles as well, and the addition of exotic locations and ethnographic background material could help it with arthouse audiences. But short of some significant pruning, it cannot hope to match the performance of its predecessor.
As with Grain In The Ear, the two main characters are a young Korean mother, Choi Sun hee (Seo Jung) and her son Chang-ho (Shin dong ho) - only this time they are even farther removed from home. Having escaped from North Korea, they crossed the border to China and then into Mongolia. They then walk across the vast sandy steppes without any destination in mind, until they reach the home of Hungai (Bat-ulzil), who insists on planting trees in the sand and nursing them lovingly, even after everyone else in his village threw their hands up in despair and left for the city.
Left along after his wife took their daughter into town to have an operation that might save her hearing, Hungai agrees to let the homeless Choi and her son stay one night, which is then extended into an indefinite period.
Despite the lack of a common language, they function almost like a normal family. Choi runs the house and helps with the daily routines and chores while her son grows fond of Hungai who, in a way, is a substitute for his father, shot by the Chinese border police.
When Hungai's inevitable clumsy advances to Choi are rejected, a distinct uneasiness creeps into the relationship, though there is no further attempt to pursue the matter. An overnight visit from a liberated Mongolian Amazon provides Hungai with an adequate dose of sex, after which he takes off to check on his own family, leaving his possessions in the care of the Korean mother and son.
When he finally returns, they are already gone, after a brief, uncomfortable affair between Choi and a friendly driver from a nearby military base, which made their stay in the place unbearable any longer.
Zhang Lu, working from his own script, is far more concerned with the metaphorical levels of the story than he is with the realistic details. The comings and goings of characters is often arbitrary; they fulfill no real role beyond their presence, like the tanks consistently criss-crossing in the background. The language problems between the Mongols and the Koreans are never dealt with satisfactorily, and there is also a South Korean film crew which makes an appearance out of nowhere, shoots something and conveniently disappears before being integrated into the plot. There is also no discussion of how someone can subsist practically in such a desolate, remote place, is never discussed.
On the other hand, the pastoral landscape offers some stunning sights and rituals and traditions are given their dues. There is also a distinct sympathy and understanding for all characters, and the plight of refugees is repeatedly underlined, whether it is Choi and son in the middle of the Mongolian steppe or Hungai, feeling lost in the big city.
The film interestingly uses long lateral tracking shots, which often stop to allow some of the action to occur out of the frame, then pursue it to catch up again. Photography also contrasts the green grass and the yellow dunes, although the picture suffers from some lax editing which makes it ultimately feel repetitive.
The final sequence, in which a radio broadcast announces North Korea's forthcoming nuclear tests, highlights the contrast between the self destruction of modern society and the few visionaries who are still dreaming of turning the desert into a flourishing garden.
Rezo Films International
Guillaume de Seille