Reviews Short Narrative

Straw Man (2022) – 2 stars

Director: Nanhui Li

Writer: Nanhui Li

Cast: Xiaokang Gao

Running time: 15mins

It’s been a few months since we mothballed Tube Rats, but it seems I still can’t escape one of the recurring themes of the films we covered there. If the movie involved kids, there was a 90% chance it was only moments away from devolving into incomprehensible violence.

Straw Man is a cut above many of those films, due to the spectacular setting and a cinematographer determined to make the most of it – even if they were only providing wallpaper to a story far less interesting than the towering mountains and endless cornfields of rural China. Unfortunately, I am not capable of properly crediting the cinematographer in question, because the submission form for the film was only partially completed.

Since I don’t speak Mandarin, this means everyone other than the director and one of the actors are anyone’s guess. Considering the fine work put in by the director of photography and the cast themselves, that is a shame – and in future, Nanhui Li should keep in mind that if he is submitting his work internationally, he needs to translate the credits. Considering this was a student film for the Beijing Film Academy, I can only assume that all the labour involved was voluntary, with people committing to the project in the interest of ‘exposure’ – exposure which has been limited dramatically by this decision.

[Update: Analysis by a friend of IFL with a recent GCSE in Mandarin suggests the Director of Photography credit is shared by Cao Liuming and Feng Cardming]

The story for the film is an adaptation of The Scarecrow, a book by Chinese author Su Tong, though it does not seem to be one which has been translated into English. The action sees two poor young brothers go to war with another youngster, over the metal found in the arms of a scarecrow.

Nanhui Li smartly fleshes out the story with some hands-off editing, allowing for lingering shots to situate their struggle within the grandeur of nature – making it seem myopic and petty in ‘the grand scheme of things’, while goats and buffalo look on in bemusement. As such, the production pokes at the triviality of the violence on display – but seems reluctant to do much more than that. In the end, this means the surroundings prove much more eye-catching than the drama unfolding in the foreground, leaving us wishing we and the camera could be anywhere but here, right now.

The film’s climactic fight scene is not well filmed – the dying light of the sinking sun leaving us to squint at two brawling teens among the corn. It is difficult to see who is doing what at any given moment, even though the pair have conveniently worn contrasting red and white t-shirts. It is an underwhelming way to conclude the story, with an ‘action set-piece’ as intelligible as one of those cartoon fight clouds.

In the end, the brother of one of the combatants – also wearing a white t-shirt – intervenes with a lethal blow/jab/nudge that occurs off-camera, so again we are left guessing as to what has occurred. When a life-or-death struggle was supposedly on the line, this is not how we should be left feeling.

To his credit, Nanhui Li does still manage to salvage something from this finale though. In one last post-script, we see the farmer placing a repaired scarecrow back on its perch in the middle of his field. The farmer stares silently at the scarecrow for a moment, in unnerving silence, before we see that it is now adorned with the red shirt one of the boys was wearing in the fight. It is a chilling reminder that, unlike the other two, he will not be leaving the field. This conclusion suggests Nanhui Li has much more to give as a storyteller than he has showcased here.

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