Old Well

A landmark of Chinese rural realism, this 1986 feature meticulously captures the harsh, insular existence of a parched valley in central China that hasn’t changed much over the centuries despite the introduction of modern amenities. Plagued by water shortages, the villagers have tried for generations to find water in an old well; the search becomes a personal mission for the village’s only male college graduate, whose obligation to marry a rich widow conflicts with his love for a younger woman who’s as forward-looking as he is. The stoic and tenacious hero, played by a brooding and ascetic Zhang Yimou, is a paragon of peasant virtue in the post-Mao era, and through him director Wu Tianming examines the dilemma of clinging to tradition versus embracing the future. Wu leaves little doubt that China needs to overcome its backwardness, yet he conveys this with a touch of nostalgia for the peasants’ rugged will to survive; some of the images seem straight out of a Brueghel canvas. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, June 19, 8:00, 312-443-3737. –Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.