Tuya’s Marriage isn’t the sort of film that cares about winning over its audience. The story of a woman who divorces her crippled husband to find a man who can support the both of them (and their children), it would be harsh even without its unforgiving Inner Mongolian setting. Add in a harsh climate, a parched landscape and the constant encroachment of the modern world on a traditional shepherding lifestyle, and you have a decidedly bleak picture.
Nan Yo plays Tuya, a woman worn down by every front of her life. Her husband injured himself trying to dig a well — he only made it far enough to dig a reservoir, which still needs to be filled from a well 15 km away. Her neighbour is a (somewhat) lovable loser whose wife repeatedly leaves him, and who has a knack for getting into roadside accidents. And her labour-intensive lifestyle has taken its toll as well — a doctor tells her that any more strenuous work would leave her as incapacitated as her husband. Hence the divorce, and the search for a new husband.
Though it’s not exactly played for laughs, the search for a suitor is one of the film’s few lighthearted segments. Strong and determined because of her harsh life and pretty despite it, Tuya is desired by folks from far and wide, and they beat a path straight to her door, asking each other for directions along the way. None of them are willing to put up with Tuya’s apparently emasculating demand that her new husband must take care of her ex, though, until the appearance of a middle-school friend who’s struck it rich in the oil industry.
Although Tuya is the one searching for a caretaker, it’s clear that the men around her need her far more than she needs them. Yo’s performance captures Tuya’s frustration and inner strength perfectly — she never appears beaten, but is often hovering in the space between hope and defeat. It’s a remarkably naturalistic performance, matched by the non-professionals who take on the rest of the roles. These amateurs can be awkward, but it’s entirely in keeping with their characters, and only heightens Yo’s presence.
Though it has elements of romance, Tuya’s Marriage is more a tale of perseverance. Tuya’s husband, suitors and lifestyle are all hopeless — it’s as if every element has been specifically constructed to provide the greatest struggle possible. And while it never builds to a Hollywood triumph, it doesn’t really need to. In the face of that kind of world, avoiding defeat can be a triumph in itself.