Published Sep 14, 2015He Ping's first film set in the present day, though stylistically different than his prior formal period pieces, is no less interested in the evolution of Chinese culture. The Promised Land is at times comic, but more often dramatic, denoting the migration of rural youths to urban locales — Beijing here — as a backdrop for what is presented chiefly as a classic love story.
Initially, this socially conscious drama follows the experiences of He Jiang (Zhang Yi), a hockey player and coach adapting to the city life in a cramped, shared student dwelling. Little things, such as bringing his own toilet paper to the shared bathroom, don't occur to him, which is where Ling Ai (Wang Jiajia), a ballerina (and dance teacher, reiterating a cyclic urban theme of unfulfilled aspirations) comes in, offering him some blunt advice and teaching him modes of self-survival. And as these two start to bond, with Ling Ai slowly opening up and acknowledging He Jiang's flirtations and generalized goofiness, He Ping fuels the underlying commentary and thematic motivations with minor observations and comments noting the peculiarity of strangers living like a family traditionally would (only not supporting each other the same way).
Though the style is often quite loose, with an occasional improvised dynamic, there are repeat visual trajectories that reiterate the key points. Ling Ai and He Jiang's rooms are adjacent, both with a small balcony, which allows them to share a frame without sharing space. This division not only allows for different lighting and colour to represent the characters, but it also aids in visualizing the slight division between the two and the ultimate isolation of moving to a big city. Playfully, the characters use the wall dividing them as a bonding tactic, knocking and tapping in a detached, urban mode of passive romance.
That both characters ultimately wind up teaching other their skill isn't just a coincidence; a key point throughout The Promised Land is an ironic play on the title. There's no assurance that the dreams these youths aspire for will be fulfilled, and the more they inhabit the cold landscape of this booming metropolis, the less likely it seems that their ambitions will be fulfilled. This is juxtaposed with a constant retreat to familiar grounds, with them repeatedly going home and remarking on the sense of ease they feel in that space.
Familial obligation and comfort in tradition ignite anxieties in these young lovers. While in the city, there's a claustrophobic sense about their environment; when they're at home, the camera can't help but take in multiple planes of action or close in on them intimately in confined spaces, whereas the open spaces and long shots of the country reflect their ease. What makes this work is the focus on their budding relationship and the amount of time dedicated to the minor idiosyncrasies that ultimately develop with nascent lovers. Without this, the literal-mindedness and endless didacticism could easily have made this an exercise in nostalgia and political posturing, warning the audience of the dangers that ignoring tradition can cause.
Unfortunately, when all is said and done, this is what The Promised Land does. A rather dramatic finale does suggest that putting career ambitions ahead of family is futile, but the thoughtful handling of character versus guiding exposition preceding gives this rather jarring ending an emotional component that helps it have the effect that it intends without being too pedantic.
It's also important to note that the shift in cultural dynamic being depicted here is, to varying degrees, a global issue, with survival often being contingent on abandoning humble modes of self-sustainment for larger corporate careers in urban spaces. While it's exacerbated in China with students and rural farmers protesting the totalitarian sensibilities of the Communist Party of China, there is a link to globalization that helps keep this from being an overly provincial work.
(Classics Media Co)