While the Chinese underground is as fertile a cine-incubator as any in the world today, state-sanctioned product from the mainland gets little exposure in the West unless accompanied by a Fifth Generation imprimatur. As such, the two behemoths opening at the Pioneer this week under the somewhat misleading banner “New Films From Mainland China” (one is from ’97, the other ’99) have, at the very least, a certain curiosity value. The Journey to the Western Xia Empire, the older of the pair, stages an 11th-century paean to peasant tenacity and maternal love against the boundless, rugged steppes of the northwest. Director Lu Wei started out as screenwriter for Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (To Live), but his debut feature is a reticent, primarily visual experience (Chen is credited as “art adviser”). As horsemen from the Xi Xia Empire rampage through villages rounding up little boys as “human blood tax,” the gruff chief meets his match in a pregnant woman whose baby son he grimacingly delivers (having only had experience with fillies). The collectors add the newborn to their booty, leaving the mother behind, but she remains in dogged pursuit throughout the arduous, harshly scenic trek.
Roaring Across the Horizon likewise utilizes desert landscapes to gorgeous, if somewhat more chilling, effect. You could think of this rah-rah account of China’s first nuclear test as the Sino Fat Man and Little Boy. Like Roland Joffé’s 1989 Manhattan Project potboiler, Chen Guoxing’s movie filters the countdown to detonation through the relationship between a scientist and a military officer—here an MIT-trained physicist and a poetry-writing general. Opening with newsreel footage establishing American bellicosity and climaxing in an emotional monologue denouncing the “bullying imperialists,” this is an expertly executed bit of propaganda kitsch that nonetheless makes for queasy viewing in these threshold days. The tone is just this side of Strangelove—very little worrying and a whole lot of loving. A mere 20 minutes in, the exhausted troop’s discovery of an oasis in the Gobi occasions a spurt of slo-mo Chariots of Fire ecstasy; when the big one goes off without a glitch, Chen scores the teary, trampolining hurrahs to “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Mao mash note or not, Roaring Across the Horizon illustrates the disastrous double standards of U.S. nonproliferation policy (brilliantly outlined by Jonathan Schell in a recent Nation cover story): The irrefutable logic underlying the film—that nuclear power equals global prestige—is its own argument for multilateral disarmament.