The Deals Made to Go on in a So-Called Simple Life
Published: April 4, 2008

Who, if given a choice, would want to grow up on the cold, arid steppe of Inner Mongolia, the setting of Wang Quan An’s absorbing film “Tuya’s Marriage”? The climate is so inhospitable that life is a grinding struggle for subsistence. Water is scarce and must be lugged by hand from distant wells. Yet the movie finds an austere beauty in this landscape of scrub and grassland ringed by forbidding slate-blue mountains. The camera frequently draws back to take in the spectacle of people dwarfed by nature in a harsher Asian answer to the North American plains.

Most of the film’s characters, including Tuya (Yu Nan), an attractive, robust woman who lives with her husband and their two young children, dwell in crude huts made with wood and rugs. Sheep herding is the region’s primary occupation and source of food, although there are signs of change. And alcohol is almost as necessary a staple as water; consumed prodigiously, it provides insulation from the cold and relief from pain.

This grueling life in a cruel environment exacts a heavy toll. Tuya’s husband, Bater (played, as are the other male characters, by a nonactor of the same name), was permanently disabled in a well-digging accident and is entirely dependent on Tuya, who fetches water and tends the flock. The family’s future is imperiled when she dislocates her back while tugging out a man pinned beneath an overturned truck.

Lest you think that “Tuya’s Marriage” is an ethnographic curiosity, Mr. Wang and his screenwriting collaborator, Lu Wei (“Farewell My Concubine”), portray a world that, apart from its hardship, is thoroughly recognizable in its human complexity. Its characters are motivated by the same needs for companionship and material well-being and the same demons — greed, lust, jealousy and despair — that drive everybody.

Tuya realizes that the most practical way of preserving her family is to follow Bater’s suggestion that she divorce him and remarry — on condition that her new husband agree to take care of Bater and the children. The local belle of the ball, so to speak, she is besieged by suitors from near and far when word spreads of her decision. The film observes the fascinating rites of courtship and the dealmaking by this strong, unsentimental woman who knows what she wants and drives a hard bargain.

The movie begins and ends with the same ambiguous scene of her eventual wedding day, when her young son fights with another boy who sneers at him for having two fathers. Tuya, after breaking up the fight, retreats from the celebration to reflect. The film has too much integrity to equate marriage with happily ever after.

Her choice of new husbands comes down to two men. Senge, a shy, high-strung friend and neighbor whose shrewish wife ran away from home, taking his truck, screws up the courage to propose; he will divorce his wife when he finds her, he promises. But a more likely candidate is Baolier, a divorced childhood schoolmate of Tuya who is newly wealthy, having struck oil.

Baolier represents the forces of technological change that are just beginning to affect the region. In his marriage proposal he agrees to take care of Bater by putting him in what passes in Inner Mongolia for a comfortable nursing home, and Tuya agrees. But within a short time Bater, feeling abandoned, gets drunk and slashes his wrists.

Baolier, the nouveau riche Mongolian, is portrayed as the same kind of conspicuously consuming vulgarian as the typical American oil tycoon. Fortified by his money, he insists on having things his way and having them now rather than later. Long before Tuya is ready, he forces his attentions on her in a roadside inn that, despite its large-screen television and spacious accommodations, is even more desolate than the steppe on which it looms like a modern monstrosity.

The industrial landscape that may eventually usurp the primitive one is just a different kind of wasteland.