REVIEW: Sun Valley (1996)

The Avenger (Zhang Fengyi) is a wandering swordsman suffering from a deep post-traumatic malaise. He arrives in a rural valley in western China to wait for someone. While waiting he struggles to retain his composure while encountering an old warrior-turned-monk (Ku Feng) and a kindly woman (Yang Kuei-Mei) who runs the local inn and bathhouse.

Sun Valley, from Chinese director He Ping, is a remarkably sedate film. It forms the second part of a trilogy of ‘Chinese westerns’, films that deliberately riffed on the tropes of the American western genre and re-worked them into a Chinese context. It comes, thematically at least, between 1991’s Swordsmen in Double Flag Town and 2004’s Warriors of Heaven and Earth. Sun Valley is a much quieter work than the other two films; maybe that is why it feels less creatively successful. It feels rich with potential, but the potential is – for much of the film’s running time at any rate – unrealised.

Zhang Fengyi delivers an excellent performance as the Avenger, awkward around Yang Kuei-Mei’s wary innkeeper and bottled up with tension whenever he is around others. On more than one occasion the sight of blood sends him into a violent frenzy, murdering anybody in his vicinity with his sword. It’s a curious behaviour that goes largely unnoticed and unpunished throughout the film. We see him slaughters several farmers at a time, but no one seems to send in a lynch mob to kill him and within a few scenes the inn seems packed with locals again. The screenplay, which is sparsely plotted and inconsistent, is definitely not the film’s strength.

One positive feature of which it can boast is its wonderful sense of place. The mountain steppes on which the inn is located are dusty and inhospitable during the summer and snowy and frozen – yet still inhospitable – during the winter. It’s all shot very well with solid sound design: you can feel the environment around the characters, and the frontier nature of the setting is well realised and excellently expressed.

A strong performance and solid mise-en-scene can not, however, save an entire film. In the end the weak plotting causes the film to drag interminably to the point where the average viewer could be excused for not actually finishing it. There is a lot of promise to Sun Valley, but it’s simply not sufficiently explored or expressed to make it worth the viewer’s time. It is a sadly missed opportunity. Given the effort likely involved to track a copy down these days, it is only really of interest to those looking to complete He’s trilogy.

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