In recent years there has been no shortage of Chinese war epics. Every year several prominent directors stick their names to one or other excessive big-budget affair where no expenses are spared to recreate the largest battles in China's rich and sprawling history of warfare. Ping He's Mai Tian (Wheat) may look like it fits this mold, but actually it doesn't (at all). It's a remarkably small and humble film, which is exactly where its true strength lies.
Rather than focus on the actual warfare, He directs his camera at a village full of left-behind women. Year after year they have to survive on their own while the man are waging war in nearby cities and villages. Uncertain of their men's fate, the women go about their everyday lives, relying on their shaman for information from the outside world. The setup of Wheat reminded me a little of Hu Guan's Cow (also a 2009 film), which offers a similar secluded view of warfare, focusing on a small village tucked away amidst the mountains.
Out little village is greatly disturbed when two men are found in a nearby riverbed. Identified as their own soldiers through wounds inflicted by the adversary's weapons, these two men turn about to be deserters of the adversary's army, left for deadafter they jumped into the river. Looking at the somewhat troublesome start of the film, it's a shame He gives away this piece of information early on as it could and would've spiced things up a bit during the first half of the film.
But He doesn't keep his audience in the dark and focuses on how these two men integrate with the rest of the villagers. With one of the two men acting as a complete idiot though, I don't feel He made the right decision there. The first half is centered around many dialogs and features little to no action sequences, which makes the constant over-acting of the dimwitted fellow a little hard to bear, especially as he is quite prominently featured.
Visually He has everything under control. Standards are pretty high for Chinese war epics, but He lives up to them pretty well. He does differentiate himself with a handful of shots from directly above which do make for some very nice views of the corn fields. The lighting is particularly strong and the interior settings are lush and impressive. If you're a fan of the wealthy and traditional Chinese styling, you're gonna feel right at home.
The music is equally traditional, a combination of beautiful strings and typical Chinese instruments. I've come to expect little more from a film like this and I do like the music itself quite a bit, but I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more variation in the scores used for films like these, as they become a bit interchangeable after a while. It can be a little dire if you can dream a soundtrack before even seeing a trailer of a certain film.
As for the acting, Jue Huang does a good job as fierceless warrior. It's Fan Bing Bing who's allowed to shine the most though, as the strong, fearless mistress of the village who takes her job and responsibility very seriously. The supporting cast is equally solid, the only bad apple is Jiayi Du who takes his role a bit too far and becomes annoying rather quickly, playing the village idiot. Part of the annoyance comes from the character itself, but He should've downplayed him a little to make his presence less visible.
Wheat knows a rather rough start. He gives away a bit too much at the start of the film and the role of the village idiot gets too much attention. Gradually things get better though and when halfway through the film the village is attacked by bandits, raising some serious suspicion around the story of our two men, Wheat turns into a very amusing and remarkable little film, even gaining enough momentum to warrant the beautiful yet somewhat sentimental ending.
Wheat is different from other Chinese war epics in the sense that it keeps itself away from the actual battlefield and warfare, focusing more on the people left behind. There are some mild yet impressive action sequences in the second half, but they are definitely not the main selling point here. If you're a fan of Cow then Wheat is a sure sell, but everyone looking for a more toned-down, stylish yet amusing war film should have a go at it. Remember that the first half our is a bit rough around the edges, things will get only better after that.