Road trip movies are typically comedies, but the Gobi Desert in northwestern China is not conducive to light-hearted romps. That suits the hard luck of Yong, a bumbling ostrich farmer. The climate should be hospitable for his flock, but he still managed to default on a local gangster’s loan. To stave off the foreclosure of his ex-wife’s flat, Yong agrees to do him a favor by babysitting a rather sullen young boy in Tang Gaopeng’s The Road Not Taken (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Asian World Film Festival.
It is blatantly obvious to the audience “the kid,” as he is simply referred to throughout the film, has been kidnapped from his father, a powerful local official, but Yong is painfully slow on the uptake. Brother Five needs to stash their hostage someplace, while he does the bidding of his bigger boss, Mr. Lee, so he leaves him in the not-so-safe safekeeping of “Uncle” Yong.
Yong would have been happy to let the kid mope, until he called his ex and heard a man in the background. Naturally, he precipitously storms off to Taibailiang to have it out with her, with the kid hiding in the back of his truck. One accident and an awkward confrontation later, Yong and the kid are hitching their way to Taibailiang with Mei, a tough trucker, who still pines for her absconded husband. Even though she can tell Yong is a schemer, the three start to grudgingly enjoy their time together—while it lasts.
Road is a rather unlikely fusion of a sentimental comedy with a rigorously naturalistic, regionally-based Chinese indie drama. Somehow, it mostly works, thanks to Wang Xuebing’s fearlessly flexible performance as Yong. At first, his shtick makes us groan, but then we start to see his desperation and sadness, at which point it becomes quite poignant. As Mei, the boldly glammed down but still striking Ma Yili also shows why she is such a fast-rising star. She gives a wonderfully sly and subtle performance that will win over more hearts than a rom-com like When Larry Meets Marry ever could. Although Zhu Gengyou certainly looks like a cute kid, his constant sulking grows tiresome (but that is not necessarily his fault).
Tang deserves credit for constantly upending expectations, especially for western viewers raised on Hollywood beat-sheet formulas. Every time the film reaches a crossroads, it turns away from the safe and predictable. Cinematographer Guo Daming also vividly captures the unforgiving ruggedness of the Gobi landscape. Tang’s execution is inconsistent in some respects, but the resulting film is far better than a capsule synopsis might suggest. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, The Road Not Taken screens this afternoon (10/28) and Tuesday night (10/30), as part of this year’s Asian World Film Festival.