When it rains it pours. As ironic as it could possibly sound this is how to best explain the myriad of subtleties and nuances coursing through the debut feature from writer/director Gao Qisheng; a piece spent aging in an endless loop of world and character building, “River of Salvation” quietly demands your full attention, patience, and a high-functioning memory span. With an unknown cast bringing these subtleties to life with an air of realism, and its delivery surpassing the simplicity of the plot, its world premiere at this year’s Winter Film Awards ought to leave a strong impression on all those in attendance.
Whittling her time away as a reflexologist for a once thriving foot parlour, Rong (painstakingly brought to life by Yanxi Li) cares for her brother Dong (Kangli Zhu) whilst keeping herself relatively distant to the outside world, partially to an unexplained sun allergy. She maintains few meaningful relationships with the people she works with, most notably the exuberantly vivacious Jinhua (Jun Liu), her avaricious boss (Chuankai Chen) and Aunt Tian (Daosheng Huang), an elderly client convinced she and her son would be a good fit together. When Dong’s girlfriend Jing (Peiqi Yang) tells him she’s pregnant this sets off a chain of events which ends up bring the two siblings closer together, with Rong quitting her job to teach her brother necessary life skills.
Just as deceptive as its host of characters, “River of Salvation” comes across as simple a human drama as possible; whilst this is true enough on its monochromatic surface the puzzles harbouring in the depths below provide the film’s truest appeal. Its characters are meticulously pieced together across the span of the first hour in a way which forces its audience to do the leg work themselves; bit by bit their precarious facades are revealed not just to us but also to Rong, herself a mysterious blank canvas who absorbs the truths and lies of those around her. It isn’t until half-way through the film, after an encounter with Jing regarding her pregnancy, does she take the brush and apply the colours herself. The tonal shift from here is a little more playful from here on in until the film’s puzzle has been completed (which the festival website half-reveals).
For two hours there is a constant feeling of something big and dramatic happening, but, much like the rest of the film, its conclusion comes with no fanfare; as the individual pieces of all we have seen with Rong finally come together everything makes sense – it is a neat fit which is almost suspect itself. The best thing about this however is that everything experienced is done in tandem with our lead, who wears them as her own skin. We come to empathise on a deeper, spiritual level as we see the house of cards her life has been built around falls all around her, making her rebuild feel all too real. Every shred of information, every performance, and every frame is meticulously crafted with this exact purpose; the glacial nature of this unravelling elevates “River of Salvation” leagues above casual viewing and thus requires a higher level of alertness to fully appreciate its journey.
For all Qisheng’s nuances within his smart writing the film would simply not be as effective without cinematographer Peng Zhe’s eye for minutiae and the delivery of his leading lady. Not only does Zhe’s static, grounded camerawork render each frame as picturesque postcards lost in time, but his lingering takes beautifully captures the hidden truths lurking in the casts’ facial expressions, particularly those of Li whose silence screams louder than her words ever could, whose face alone harbours enough emotion to carry the film. Her rapport with both Zhu’s Dong and Liu’s Jinhua also feels too real for our own good; above all her performance, of a woman taking responsibility in a world void of such a thing and coming into her own being, evokes a quiet strength simmering away underneath, superbly fleshing out Rong’s determination to grow and seek her own salvation.
The strength in the film’s cast, breathing a flawed humanity through their lungs, lies further in Li’s support, particularly from Peiqi Yang who is completely believable as the wayward Jing who literally lives on the other side of the tracks. The weight of the film’s philosophy of redemption, responsibility, and independence is overtly daunting at times, but the shoulders of the largely female ensemble make for excellent carriage, managing to convey every small detail with effortless ease. As a result, “River of Salvation” never feels like an exercise on pretentious self-indulgence; it’s honest in its dishonesty, simple in its existentialism, and visually gorgeous to bask in.