Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, with Ma Liang, winner of Best Supporting Actor in Festival)

Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.

Grass Ring was our Family Expedition movie for the festival: Helen, her parents, Kai, Sally and I all went to this one. I think I liked it more than anybody else did, but all the family reviews were generally positive.

Helen’s first barometer for any Chinese movie seems to be how it stacks up technically against Hollywood. I, on the other hand, am much more interested in the story we are told and the characters we meet. This is one of the biggest reasons I rarely go see Hollywood movies anymore: Hollywood is technically flawless, but its storytellers seem to have no stories left to tell that both they and I agree are worth telling.

Grass Ring‘s story was one that I found fascinating, and as a special bonus it kept me guessing right up until the end, which very, very few movies these days do. It is a romantic drama, not a romantic comedy; fortunately it was written by somebody who understands at a deep level what real love is. It is a triangle: two men, who love the same woman; one woman, who could love the second except that she has already given her heart to the first.

I have to be careful not to commit the sin of spoiling here. But all of the following different kinds of love, and different types of failure to love, are explored in this film, and all by somebody who knows a whole lot more about love than did the author of the largely-unwatchable-by-me pastiche Love Actually:

  • A shallow man’s infatuation with a beautiful girl.
  • A girl’s undying passion for a lost love.
  • The self-hatred of a man who fails his family in every way and takes the coward’s way out.
  • The love mixed with anguished guilt of a good woman who, finding herself in a terrible situation, makes an even more terrible mistake that creates years of tragic consequences for herself and her daughter, and her desperate attempts to undo the harm she has done.
  • The love of an adopted father for the orphans he takes under his wing.
  • The love with which the orphans love him back.
  • The innocent first love of a young man and young woman who make a commitment to love and refuse to go back on that commitment even at tremendous personal cost.
  • The love, so utterly infused with duty as to be hardly distinguishable therefrom, of Chinese children to Chinese parents.
  • The self-sacrificing love of a young man for a young girl whom he is convinced is better off without him.
  • The love of a young woman for a young man whose heart, as she all too bitterly knows, is wholly given to another.
  • The self-sacrificing love of a young man for a young woman, when the young man is actually the same man who started out at the top of this list with a shallow infatuation with a beautiful girl, but who has to come to terms with what love truly means and has to choose whether or not he will pay that price.
  • It is a actually a profoundly thought-provoking story, especially because even at the end, I found myself trying to decide whether I thought the characters had made the right choices. I concluded that they had, but I am not sure that Helen agrees with me.

    One of the more interesting things about the movie, to me, is that the central character (“Zhi,” played by Hu Meng), is remarkably, though not at first noticeably, passive. She is the center of all the other characters’ actions and choices, but she herself makes very few choices, and where she does choose, her choices are frustrated by fate and come to nothing. She is a woman of great loyalty; but Hu makes an interesting choice in how she portrays that loyalty: her Zhi is as imprisoned by her past as she is loyal to it — she is deeply emotionally bound to the well-deserving Jiang (played by director/producer/lead actor Hong Yiping), but she portays the character’s loyalty as being almost as much indecision as loyalty. She chooses loyalty to Jiang, but the longer the movie goes on the longer you wonder whether she is capable of any other choice — and if so…well, can that still meaningfully be called a choice? In the end, the choice that will define her life — the choice between the old love and the new love — is made entirely on her behalf in collaboration by the two men, each of whom is willing to forfeit his own happiness to ensure hers, and neither of whom even allows her to know the choice is possible before the choice is made.

    So while Helen thought Hu was an unimpressive actress, I felt that it was more that she had an unusual role and made some unusual, but I think reasonable, choices in that role.

    It is not made clear either by the script or by Hong’s performance as Zhi’s first love Jiang why it is that he comes to feel so strongly, once Zhi’s mother reenters her life, that he must remove himself from Zhi’s life at whatever cost. Perhaps that was meant as deliberate ambiguity. I myself found it a weakness in the film, but could not tell whether it was a flaw in the script or in Hong’s acting. As for Ma Liang, who played Zhi’s wealthy and initially shallow second love, I thought he fully deserved the Best Supporting Actor in Festival prize that the Worldfest jury awarded him — except that it seemed to me that he was actually the male lead and Hong the supporting actor.

    It isn’t a light-hearted film by any means, but if you are in the mood for a thought-provoking story that has a pretty solid grasp on the nature of love and loyalty and the dilemmas that can arise when there is more than one person in one life who deserves one’s loyalty and love, then Grass Ring is well worth your time. I would certainly watch it again myself.

    Prior Worldfest 2018 posts:

    I mislead some nice Chinese girls

    Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)

    Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…

    General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest

    Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)

    Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!

    Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

    Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)

    Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold Remi winner)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)

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