Gada Meilin Review
There may indeed be some factual basis to Feng Xiaoning’s sweeping historical epic set on the plains of Mongolia during the turbulent period of the Japanese invasion of China in 1931 (a brief search on Google and Wikipedia however revealed no supporting documentation), but Gada Meilin resembles nothing so much as an oriental Western done in the classic Hollywood style. What the film loses from historical accuracy by adhering to a conventional genre format, it does however gain in entertainment value, succeeding in being a genuinely stirring and thrilling adventure.
Gada Meilin is set in the Wild West of Mongolia, a region of considerable strategic importance during this period for the Kuomintang troops and for the Japanese military who can gain advantage in China through control of the region. The nomadic tribes who inhabit the region evidently have no say in the matter, but when a local official makes a deal to hand the land over to the Nationalist troops and expelling its inhabitants, the various tribes protest at the injustice.
Ever since he was a child, a weak boy bullied by the other boys, Gada has always dreamed of being a Meilin, a chieftain for the Darhan tribe, but having gained that position, earning the respect of his people and the love of his childhood sweetheart, he now finds himself in a conflicted position, wanting to serve the Local Authorities, but angry at the deal that has been done, a deal that will drive the people from the land and result in valuable farmland carefully tended through years of hard labour being given up to the growing desert. It’s a similar situation to one that Gada witnessed as a boy, when a rebellion from another tribe leader to the loss of his land was brutally quashed and the leader executed. The leader’s son, now a bandit living in the mountains, hasn’t forgotten how the authorities killed his father, but he also remembers an act of kindness to him on the part of the Darhan people and, when Gada’s petitions and entreaties fail, he teams up with the Darhan Meilin to fight injustice the only other way open to them - with force.
There’s a lot of Hollywood about that kind of treatment of historical material, the script hitting all the expected plot points of a classic epic, setting the scene of early childhood experience, young love, the forging of a social conscience, the encounter of secondary figures and development of relationships that are to prove key to the plot in later years. Those events are then handled with all the conventions you would expect, the romantic scenes filmed on horseback against magnificent landscapes and red sunsets, scenes of defeat and comeback, capture and escape, sudden ambushes and the cavalry arriving in the nick of time. All of this is within a clearly identifiable structure of repeated symmetrical situations and motifs (a red scarf, a talisman, a lone musician) to underline sentiments and identify locations.
Workmanlike would be the best way to describe Feng Xiaoning’s treatment of Gada Meilin then. Its revolutionary situation and period aligns the film with Red Sorghum, while its historical epic nature and location remind one of Mongol, particularly since the feudal agricultural civilisation in the region has scarcely advanced in the seven hundred years since Genghis Khan, but the film has neither the pure artistry of Zhang Yimou’s debut feature nor the technical qualities of Sergei Bodrov’s modern blockbuster. Competently directed and attractively shot with strong performances from an engaging cast, Feng Xiaoning uses the film’s budgetary restrictions to his advantage however and several set-pieces – a horse stampede, a prison break and several battle sequences – are all the more effective and realistic for being free from CGI (and would be even better but for the creaky staging and theatrics of the unconvincing extras who fling themselves around on the battle field with abandon).
Director Feng Xiaoning focuses instead on the characterisation - conventional though it may be - and the mechanics of the plot, pacing it well with a meaningful mirrored structure and symmetry that attests to how history and human nature has a way of repeating itself, but how with forgiveness and a second chance lessons can be learned and progress achieved. This humane sentiment and an explosive finale that more than lives up to epic status of the historical subject matter, overrides the more creaky elements of the plot and ultimately succeeds in making Gada Meilin a thrilling and stirring adventure.
Gada Meilin is released in the UK by Escapi. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
As with other Chinese film releases from Escapi, the quality of the transfer is far from great, but it’s at least adequate and certainly more than watchable. For a start, the transfer is non-anamorphic, letterboxed at a ratio of close to 1.66:1. Whether this is the original ratio, I couldn’t say, but it looks fine and zooms nicely to 14:9 mode on capable televisions with the subtitles remaining visible. The image is rather soft, particularly in wide shots, but clear and well-defined in medium to close shots. Colours are reasonably good, not overly bright, and the tones are adequate. Apart from an occasional reel-change mark, there are no significant marks on the print. Even though it only takes up a little over 5Gb of the dual-layer disc, there are none of the common digital artefacts evident – no blocking and no edge-enhancement - but the image does look like noise-reduction or filtering has been applied.
The soundtrack is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 with some noticeable stereo effects, but not a particularly wide range. Dialogue is clear and warmly-toned, as is the music score. Again, it’s basic, but perfectly functional.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font. They are generally fine, displaying only a few minor errors in spelling and grammar. Swedish and Dutch subtitles are also available.
The only extra features on the DVD are trailers for other Escapi Chinese cinema titles, Life Show, Postmen in the Mountains and Purple Sunset.
It’s certainly lacking the budget and artistry of similar historical Chinese epics, falling often into conventional plotting and characterisation, but Gada Meilin manages to overcome those limitations and succeeds at least in delivering a well-paced adventure that expresses meaningful sentiments in a historical context. The DVD release from Escapi is rather basic, but likewise serves its ultimate purpose effectively enough.
Last updated: 17/06/2018 11:21:40