The Savage Land (1988)
Reviewed by: STSH on 2007-08-09
Summary: Beautiful
Motifs of the American Western are all over the place here. The opening scene has the escaped convict jumping from a train. He then checks on the stolen loot. He plots to steal back his childhood sweetheart. When the law pursues, it’s the local sheriff and his deputies. There’s even a spot of whipping.

The opening credit describes this movie as being based on a play, and given that there is at least one film made earlier with the same title, it could be a classic or popular play. Knowing this, it is easy to see this story being played on a stage. Much of the action has, despite some glorious outdoor scenes, that feeling of claustrophobia of a small group of characters in intense interaction, as though they are in a small room and fuming at each other.

This film is impressive in just about every department. The cinematography is excellent and visuals have a colourful and lush feel. The acting is first-rate, the characters strong and the story convincing. The pace, even when leisurely, is just right, and the story holds attention the whole way through. Much of the interest in the story lies in the ability of the players to push each other’s hot buttons. There are several object lessons in manipulation and emotional blackmail. It is not so much the land that is savage – it’s the characters.

Yang Zaibao is magnetic. He manages to be dangerous and bad, yet human enough to lose control and do foolish things after committing violent acts. Liu Hsiao Chan plays a luscious spitfire, and these two characters are in every way an even match.

The girl’s husband is a pitiful character. This weak and money-grubbing young man is somehow already on his third wife. And the young couple live in fear of a frail-looking old granny, the husband’s blind mother. This old gal is my favourite character. She has the force of a tank and is sharp as a scalpel. She calls her daughter-in-law a whore to her face, then sticks pins into a voodoo doll of the girl. When the girl is less than respectful to her husband (which is all the time), she urges the son to be a man, to beat and whip his wife. She holds the hands of those close to her and can almost read their minds in the process. This is one terrifying old lady, and her performance is riveting.

Stuck with a man she doesn’t love, caring for a child not her’s (the infant son of wife number two, whose fate is never mentioned), and under the withering tongue of the mother-in-law from hell, it isn’t surprising that the young woman would want to run away, let alone with a man who, despite furious arguments, she clearly adores.

But the fedora-wearing convict is also after revenge, and it is this that moves most of the story along after the lovers’ feelings are out in the open.

This mainland film, with a pretty much unknown cast, was a surprise treat, and I commend it.
Reviewer Score: 8