“But life’s supposed to be good, isn’t it?” the heroine of Gao Qisheng’s indie drama River of Salvation (一江春水, yī jiāng chūn shuǐ) asks an old lady who has just explained that she’s considered taking her own life because of its inescapable misery. The film’s title may in its way be ironic in that there’s no real sign of salvation for anyone in this quiet backwater of rural China where as we discover no one is quite who they say they are.
The hopelessness of 32-year-old Rong’s (Li Yanxi) existence is emphasised in the opening scenes in which she gets dressed up and heads to the port to pick up her fiancé’s mother only to be told that she won’t consent to the marriage partly because her intended’s first wife was a refined, elegant woman of much higher status while her son, Sanqiang (Chen Chuankai), is rough and boorish. Rong walks home feeling humiliated but also as if a last shot at happiness has been taken away from her. Sanqiang is also her boss at the moribund massage parlour (seemingly legitimate and offering only foot massages) where she works which is itself in the midst of financial difficulty. Meanwhile, she’s also the sole carer for her 18-year-old younger brother, Dong (Zhu Kangli), who spends most of his time playing video games and hanging out with his delinquent girlfriend, Jing (Yang Peiqi).
As dull as her life seems, we can also see that Rong has a degree of anxiety and may be attempting to hide something about her past. She seems unusually cagey when her friend and workplace colleague Jinhua (Liu Jun) tries to invite her to a recently opened dumpling shop while almost always wearing a face mask claiming to be allergic to UV light. When the police are called due to a workplace altercation, she finds herself hiding in the basement obviously not wishing to encounter them. Yet as she discovers pretty much everyone in this small backwater town is hiding something or as Jinhua puts it is different on the inside. The guy on the front desk (Xi Kang) has been embezzling money to cover a gambling problem while even the lovely old lady (Huang Daosheng) with whom Rong bonds has not been entirely honest with her even while selling dreams of a better life.
The central crisis is itself motivated by dishonesty in Jing’s claim that she is pregnant, later (perhaps falsely) stating that she made the whole thing up in order to test Dong shortly after reciting her own tearful monologue about the kind of life she wants but fears she can never have. The relationship between Jing and Dong encourages Rong to reflect on her own adolescence which contains more than a few troubling elements the film never sufficiently explores even while it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt over something which is later revealed to be a triviality. People ask her if she hasn’t thought of moving on, but she tells them that she doesn’t know how to do anything else essentially trapped in dead end small-town China where the only hope of escape seemingly lies in marrying a man with means.
Making up her mind, Rong begins teaching Dong how to be independent in the light of her impending absence while he too steps into adulthood in finding his own direction and striking out in search of it. Having faced her past, Rong quite literally burns her mask perhaps hinting at a return to a more authentic self yet pushed into a strategic retreat released from the purgatorial limbo of her small-town life but left with no place to go. Shot in 4:3, Gao’s static camera lends an additional air of stagnation to Rong’s otherwise stultifying existence which is not itself unhappy except in its concurrent anxiety and pervasive sense of hopelessness. There may be no river of salvation, but Rong does at least begin to unpick the duplicities of the world around her in unmasking the various personas she encounters while digging out their hidden truths until finally deciding to face her own and gaining with it a kind of liberation if not perhaps one which engenders a great deal of hope for the future.
River of Salvation screens in London at Picturehouse Finsbury Park, 17th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.
Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)