Tuya (Yu Nan) is a survivor and she'll do whatever it takes to keep her family together. Her husband Bater, a herdsman, injured his legs trying to build a well years ago. Having a well is a necessity in the Mongolian grassland that is fast drying up. While trying to help a neighbor in trouble, Tuya injures her back and is told by doctors that she can no longer do the physically demanding tasks that she has been. This forces her to seek a divorce so that she can marry someone who can better provide for her than Bater. But Tuya is stubborn and loyal. As she seeks a new husband, she tells her suitors that they must be willing to provide not only for her and her children but also for Bater.
Wang Quanan teams for the third time with lead actress Yu Nan, and together they present a compassionate portrait of a woman trying to survive in a changing world. Tuya's way of life is changing. In the opening scene we see horses and motorcycles side by side, and later there's a sense of the ways of the city encroaching and the people from the grasslands migrating to the cities. Tuya is trying to navigate between these two worlds as she faces harsh realities about her health. The partnership of Wang and Yu is somewhat reminiscent of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li's first collaboration, Red Sorghum . Both Gong Li and Yu Nan convey an amazing strength and determination amidst harsh conditions and often surrounded by weaker men. Both actresses prove quite capable of carrying a film. In Yu's case, she begins the film heavily bundled in layers of clothing and it takes quite a while before we uncover her radiant beauty. Yu endows Tuya with the pragmatism of a peasant facing harsh realities, but Yu also makes Tuya a little slow to understand the emotions of the men around her. She's a little prickly around the edges but we readily sympathize with her.
Yu Nana ats Tuya (Music Box Pictures)
Wang displays a documentary filmmaker's patience with accumulating details of daily life. There's an unadorned beauty to his shots and to the landscape he finds in this inhospitable region. Working again with German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier, Wang delivers a carefully observed film. His story compels us despite a weak third act that prolongs the film with a sudden, seemingly tacked on bit of melodrama involving Tuya's son.
Tuya's Marriage (unrated and in Mandarin with English subtitles) is a well crafted if a bit slow moving portrait of a woman coming to a crossroads. The film opens and closes with Tuya about to wed, and as Wang's camera moves in for a final close up we're not sure what kind of comfort we can possibly offer Tuya as she contemplates her future.
Companion viewing: Lunar Eclipse, Story of Ermei, Red Sorghum, Cave of the Yellow Dog