New-Wave Wives' Tales 

A trio of no-hanky women's pics: Tuya's Marriage, Savage Grace, and Brick Lane.

Three unhappy marriages, three desperate wives, three drastically dissimilar circumstances. Whom to feel sorry for? The bored spouse of the American plastics heir in Savage Grace? The homesick Bengal immigrant confined to her claustrophobic London council flat on Brick Lane? How about the eponymous protagonist of Tuya's Marriage, a woman who lives in a yurt on the Mongolian steppes, caring for her disabled husband and two children by herding sheep and running a farm by herself?

Bay Area art film audiences have been treated to a mini-tour of Mongolia this year. In contrast to Sergei Bodrov's authentically violent horse-and-saber epic Mongol, now in theaters, there was Desert Dream (Hyazgar), director Zhang Lu's slow, deliberate, ultimately affecting story of a herdsman whose wife wanders off — it played the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival in March. Tuya's Marriage is the best of the three, a winning combination of ethnographic scene-setting and earthy characterization built around the headstrong farm wife. By the time Tuya has sorted out her life, we're convinced she could run the country if she wanted to.

But first she needs to change partners. Tuya is managing well enough on her own, but she accidentally injures her back. Without much pause for reflection, she decides the best way to provide for the family is to obtain a civil divorce from her husband, Batoer, but to continue caring for him with the help of a new, able-bodied man. Suitors quickly line up for the hand of the attractive, no-nonsense Tuya, and among the country bumpkins is a rich oil man named Baolier. "We admire your character," avows one applicant. So do we.

The most persistent is Shenge, the unlucky but plucky local handy man, who promises to dig her a new water well. Shenge is the sort of guy who tips over hay wagons and wrecks his motorcycle while drunk, but he's persistent. And since his wife has abandoned him at the same moment Tuya goes shopping for a mate, his timing is apt. The courtship of Tuya and Shenge will never remind anyone of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, but their grasslands rapprochement takes shape as an authentic Mongolian romantic comedy, perhaps the first.

The only professional actor in the film is Yu Nan, a Chinese thespian with three films to her credit before she made Tuya's Marriage in 2006. She and director Wang, working from a screenplay by Wang and writer Wei Lu, deliver a subtle movie about coarse people. In outline as well as in Yu Nan's performance, it compares very favorably to Gong Li's star turn as the heroine of The Story of Qiu Ju, filmmaker Zhang Yimou's wry tale (1992) of a stubborn peasant woman's quest for justice. Lumbering down the lane in her heavy winter clothes, stacking hay and herding her flock, Tuya is the picture of the righteous peasant.

The Mongolian scenery is worth a look in its own right. If we pull back a bit, it's amazing how much Tuya's Marriage resembles a classic Western — mountain ranges and desert, rolling hills, folks on horseback, dusty cow towns, plain but honest people. It doesn't mean a thing, however, without Tuya. She's the salt of the earth and the belle of the wedding brawl, colorful head scarves and all. Talk about female empowerment.

Barbara Daly (played by Julianne Moore with icy disdain) never had to milk a yak. As the wife of Bakelite plastics heir and New York playboy Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), her job, in Tom Kalin's arid melodrama Savage Grace, is to accompany her indolent hubby around the watering holes of Europe, circa 1950-'60s, and help him spend his inheritance. A rotten job, but someone has to do it. The fruit of their loveless union, young Tony (Eddie Redmayne from The Good Shepherd and Elizabeth: The Golden Age), is the one who pays the price — a poor little rich kid who saves his scant creativity for his sex life. Bored contempt, idle peccadilloes, and horrid social climbing are the hallmarks of this wretched family, which stops at nothing — including incest — in its race to the pits.

If the synopsis sounds campy, it's ultimately never campy enough. Halfway through, in the middle of one of Barbara's tantrums, it occurs to us how much more entertaining it would be if she were played by Shelley Winters, or Divine. The scenario, written by Howard Rodman and based on a book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson, cries out for a Charles Ludlam to nudge it over the edge. Trouble is, director Kalin (Swoon) takes the whole thing seriously, swathing each dreadful scene in artsy cotton until it suffocates. The depredations of the industrialist class haven't been portrayed so joylessly since Tucker. Still, purple as it is, Savage Grace was enough to impress the critic from Vogue, who enthused: "The early vote for best portrayal of social life in a 2008 film. Like Death in Venice meets The Great Gatsby on the Psycho lot." I rest my case. Off with their heads.

Compared to the sublime Tuya's Marriage and the ridiculous Savage Grace, English director Sarah Gavron's debut feature, Brick Lane, is a warm bath in comfortable platitudes. Its female lead character, Nazneen (Indian actor Tannishtha Chatterjee) is the victim of an arranged marriage that sent her from her beloved Bangladesh to the gray confines of a council flat in East London, circa 1980s to the present, where she puts up with her foolish, dumpy husband, Chanu (Satish Kaushik) and two daughters while daydreaming of home — rendered beautifully by Robbie Ryan's cinematography. She hardly sets foot outside her door.

Then into her frustrated life comes Karim (Christopher Simpson), a street-smart, handsome young Bangladeshi man who manages the local home-seamstress sweatshop racket. Just the ticket for this lonely housewife. Years pass and conflict develops, gradually. But Nazneen achieves her destiny. The fulcrum of the story is Chanu, not Nazneen. A representative of that subset of twentieth-century sub-continental immigrant who is ten times more British than the most xenophobic Brit, Chanu places his faith in William Shakespeare and the notion of fair play, and is disappointed. His speech to the Bangladesh liberation movement blisters and crackles. If only Brick Lane might have sustained that fire. As it is, it's a gentle, beautifully produced, melancholy, old-fashioned "women's picture" whose best recommendation is its harmlessness.

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