Watching obscure movies means there’s nobody to tell you you’re wasting your time. Finding the gold pieces often means wading through miles of crap. Case in point, last night I watched a mainland Chinese movie from the 90s called Journey to the Western Xia Empire.
Now, I love the idea of mainland Chinese films from this time period. Until about 10-15 years ago, China was kept largely isolated from the glitzy, Westernized star system that so permeated Taiwan, Hong Kong, and really most of the rest of Asia. While being subject to the strict government censorship of communist China, several local film studios in Beijing, Xian, and a few other cities have maintained decades of creative output. Low in budget but rich in ambition, these mainland films sustained the population’s need for arts and entertainment during China’s decades-long isolation. There’s a lot of junk here (a good 50% seems to be WWII propagandistic stories of bravery in the face of the evil Japanese), but some true unloved treasures as well. I’ve discovered a small pile of of my favorite films by spelunking this cave.
A 103-minute warriors-on-horses movie set in the 1030s A.D., Journey to the Western Xia Empire might have been one of those. A more recent (1997) film, it contains some truly breathtaking photography of beautiful, desolate wilderness… and a whole lot of freaking awful brutality.
Following a tribe of raiders in the Northwest of China, we watch as they attack and brutalize a village, (literally) throw around the women, and collect a “blood tax” of ten male babies. They get drunk, they round up the kids like cattle, they head back across the desert. One kid gets lost, so they take a pregnant woman instead. Once she gives birth they take the baby and dump the woman, who lumbers after them pathetically.
Aside from this being fucking brutal to watch and not having a single redeeming story element that I could find, I couldn’t tell one character from the next. The warriors act like stupid frat boys (“See if she’s carrying a girl or a boy.” “She’s not a horse, how can I tell?” “Just treat her like one!”), the villagers act more or less like cattle. The camera is so distracted by scenery that we never get a close-up or even a dramatic cut. I could barely even tell what was happening when the birth was taking place. It’s never explained just why the Xia warriors needed to steal children, and there’s clearly no moral dilemma taking place, or any other thought for that matter. This film utterly lost me on every level. Truly awful subtitles didn’t help matters either.
The film had English titles, which is rare for mainland Chinese film of the era, and implies that they were aiming to enter this into festivals, and it apparently did win a few international awards. Along with about 40 other films it was purchased into a collection by an American collector of Chinese film, who sloppily subtitled and transferred the lot of them to video and has since put on a few film festivals and tried to sell them to distribution. Unfortunately the materials he made are so rough that most companies couldn’t consider them; a few of the decent ones ended up at Facets Multimedia (a low-cost art house distributor who generally takes what they can get) who put them out on DVD. Journey to the Western Xia Empire might have ended up getting a release, but God Almighty, it is not a good movie.