Two brothers set off on the River Road 2
road, the road home, leaving behind the school and its insistent rote learning of modernity. The road is the river bed, bereft of water and vegetation, a flat sandy bed along which these young boys, neither older than 12, wander with their camels. They are born cameleers, these Yugur lads, as familiar with the ways of camels as any urban preteen is familiar with jockeying a mobile phone.

Their journey upriver, in search of water, and of their wandering father, is virtually the entire River Road movie. Only at the very end do we glimpse a wider world, also at the very beginning, in the classroom, where the children are being drilled in calculating the US dollar value of RMB 600, instructed to calculate to two decimal places and then round off. Clearly we are in the present, when everyone, even in remote, arid Sunan Yugur county of deep inland Gansu province needs to know precisely how many dollars you get.

The boys are utterly at home with their camels and the sandy riverbed; this is not at all a road movie of the lost child at the mercy of indifferent nature, of the sort Australians make; nor the boy-becomes-man triumphing over nature that the Hollywood hero quest requires. Nor is it a post-apocalyptic climate change tale of Mad Max revenge, instant Ice Age or Biblical floods as nature sweeps greedy humanity away.

It’s just two boys and their two camels plodding along. The drama comes from their mutual loathing, the younger blaming the older for always getting favoured treatment, the older blaming the younger for causing mother’s loss. This is the deep-seated, implacable, absolutist enmity of the child.

The landscape is very much a character. The sandy river bed, the dry eroded banks, the deep dry gorges cut by vanished torrents, fill the screen. As the camera tracks the twisting gorge we expect at any moment to find what is so palpably missing: mother water. This is indeed a climate change movie, perhaps the best climate change movie made, more engaging than all the earnest docos, more believable than the big studio shockers, Ice Age, Waterworld, Day After Tomorrow, Lost City Raiders, Age of Stupid and so on.

This is more intimate, more real and present. Every frame asks: where has all the water gone? Set in the riverbed is a concrete cistern, Chinese modernity’s imitation of the central Asian qanat underground channels, but it too is empty. People drill ever deeper, but in vain. The water clearly was here yesterday, it has only just disappeared.

On the camels and the boys plod, ever hopeful that somewhere, far enough upstream, there must be mother water and father grass, as there always was on this pasture land. They always know what to do: to be careful with what little water they had in plastic jerrycans, to eat jerky, to sleep in the heat of day in the shadow of their camel, to walk by night. They are never lost, or at a loss, nature is not hostile or indifferent, we are reminded water is mother, grass is father.

On the road, many pasts appear, the ancient Tocharian past of Turkic ancestors, the ancient Buddhist past of meditation caves carved into the soft stone of the cliffs, still with their painted walls of sky dancers and saints, in faded colours, still with Buddha statues in their niches. They take shelter one night in another ruin, mud walls with no roof, yet this is explicitly yesterday’s past. Rummaging through the rubble one boy finds a photo of classmate Fatty: he and his family were here last year, now they are gone. This must be a new ruin, deliberately ruined to make it uninhabitable. But why? What hand has taken the water, smashed roofs, removed the people, desiccated the land?

A plaintive, questioning, elegiac score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian complements the mystery of the vanished water. Yazdanian has worked on several Chinese films, bringing a central Asian sensibility, and a distinct homage to Mongol moriin-hur horse-headed fiddle music that was at the core of that other camelid hit, The Weeping Camel, in which the music charmed a dyspeptic mother camel into accepting a baby she had rejected.

river road 4

The quarrel between the brothers climaxes in a fight that leaves the younger winded, on his back, alongside his dying camel. The older boy presses on, finding a Tibetan monastery, full of butterlamp light, and an old lama who dutifully turns the lad’s mind, instructing him to take refuge in the Buddha and in compassion, which the boy does, both by prostrating in the Buddhist way, and by holding his hands out, palms upward, in Islamic fashion. The prompt to be compassionate works, the boy retrieves his brother and they continue up the river road, with the surviving camel. Still we ache, as do they, to see water, so evidently recently present, so mysteriously gone. The lama too is under instructions to pack up the monastery and remove it to “the town.”

This is a ruined landscape, ruined by more than “drought”. It is a landscape in which the state has imposed its communes and commands, slogans and cisterns, and is now withdrawing to its citadel cities, taking the people with it.

Only towards the end is water found, and in it men washing river gravel for flecks of gold, men who include their father, no longer nomadising with his camels, caught up in this end-of-days goldrush craze, before it too collapses.

Sense prevails, the boys now with father all head off ever further upriver, still hopeful that somewhere there is still space, mother water and father grass sufficient to persist, at least for another season, with the life of the cameleer nomads. Up they trudge, rounding a dun bank, above which we see, for a moment, the most improbable sight: a tall industrial chimney, so tall it is painted with orange and white stripes as a warning to aircraft. Was that real? Round the next bend we see it all: a full-scale industrial plant, all steel and lights, chimneys and pipes. At last we know where the water went, what took all the life out of the pasture, why the Yugur ethnicity has no future, and must join those migrating to the cities “for conservation.” Father and sons walk on. Credits roll.

For those of us looking for ways to get the climate message across, this is the movie. We are not fifty years hence looking back on human foolishness. We do not need CGI to paint the picture, except for one magical moment when the grass returns, waving in the wind, carpeting the land, only to vanish again. All we need is two boys who know their camels, their river road and a land that so palpably thirsts. The conclusion, that climate change is man-made, has a nameable point source, is utterly evident onscreen as we come on the heaviest of heavy industrial footprints robbing all downstream of their mothers. This is the climate movie for our times, all the more potent because it is so clearly today’s world.

River Road is by Li Ruijun, who grew up in Gansu, in these landscapes, which feature in his other indie movies too, all of which struggle with China’s censorship regime, and official insistence on upbeat stories, to get commercial release. Li’s earlier films, Fly with the Crane, 告訴他們,我乘白鶴去了,2012; The Old Donkey, 老驢頭, 2010 and The Summer Solstice, 2007 could not get onto screens in China, being too close to realities that challenge the propaganda of a China fulfilling its dream of prosperity. Li Ruijun, still in his early thirties, has now tried again, at a time when movie-going has grown enormously in China, but martial arts blockbusters continue to crowd out indie realism.

In his earlier movies it was all too obvious that in the creative destruction of modernity much is lost, and not everyone is a winner. In Li’s earlier films the focus was on the old, who lose out as modernity advances. Fly with the Crane focuses on two elderly coffin makers whose craft is declared redundant by a state that makes cremation mandatory, emblematic of modernity, saving space that can then become available for urbanisation, free from villagers sentimentally attached to honouring the tombs of ancestors. To the old coffin makers, it is not only the loss of their livelihood, but also the loss, as they near their ends, of their own opportunity to be properly buried, with the chance that a white crane will fly the soul to heaven. So the next to die is secretly buried, breaking the law of modernity. Too much for the censors.

This time Li is more circumspect. Modernity with Chinese characteristics seldom intrudes, except for the classroom scene bookending the start and the brief goldrush and heavy industry shots at the end.  So it is up to the audience to fill in, to see what cannot be shown, not only the aching absence of water, but the cause of its disappearance. It pays to do a little homework.

Li Ruijun’s home province, Gansu, is China’s most ancient claim to have a far west stretching inland. This is where the Great Wall finally yields to the sand. The Hexi Corridor is the floor of Gansu, a finger of Chinese settlement stretching northwestwards towards the ancient Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang. To the north are the Mongols, to the south the Tibetans, both major influences on the life, language and religion of the Yugur minority nationality, Yuguzu 裕祻族, whose homeland is just one county, Sunan, 肃南.

What saves Sunan from obscurity, its traditional blessing and contemporary curse, is its proximity to the Tibetan Plateau, whose far northern perimeter is the Chokle Namgyal mountain range, (Qilian Shan in Chinese) the edge of a land surrounded by mountains. These mountains are high enough –up to 6000 metres- to attract the last shreds of moisture in the sky from the distant monsoons, where it falls as snow onto glaciers and watersheds, drained by the Heihe, the Hei River, the lifeline of the Sunan Yugur homeland. In the mountains there is over 500 mm of rain a year, down in the Hexi Corridor as little as 100 mm.

Extending Chinese settlement of the Hexi Corridor has been a priority for China, with water availability the biggest constraint. China’s modern hydraulic economy, as long ago as the 1950s, saw in the Hexi Corridor, an outstretched finger of modernity defying the deserts to the north and west, and the intense cold of Tibet to the south. The Hexi Corridor was to be where man conquers nature, if only enough water could be captured.

Only 200 kms north of where River Road is set is China’s missile testing range, now better known as where China’s astronauts blast off from. The Hexi Corridor is now heavily industrialised, despite the chronic lack of water. To the east of the Yugurs of Sunan, 200 kms away, is the nickel mine, nickel and copper smelters of the Jinchuan Group, China’s biggest nickel producer expanding rapidly into copper, owner of the Tibetan copper deposit at Shetongmon, whose concentrates are sent by rail almost 2000 kms to the Jinchuan smelter at Jinchang.

The missile testing and launch base was built by the Soviet Union for China in 1958, in use ever since, not only for missile testing but also for launching satellites and China’s manned space program.

These mines, smelters and missile test bases are huge enterprises; the missile launch site can house as many as 20,000 people at once.

Soviet and Chinese military planners chose the site precisely because of its remoteness, in drylands bordering Inner Mongolia, classified by China as waste land. The only drawback was the lack of water, but Chinese engineers were confident the Chokle Namgyal mountain range (Qilian Shan in Chinese) could be hydro dammed in many places, as it runs parallel with the southern edge of long and narrow Gansu province.

The Jinchuan smelter was named for the “Golden River” that for decades was the primary asset of the Jinchuan Group, based on the nickel deposit discovered in the 1950s.

Those decisions of the 1950s set the course of development for the whole Hexi Corridor and consequent industrialisation, water shortage notwithstanding. Until quite recently  the hydraulic engineers always had a solution, there was always another dam that could impound the waters and snowmelt.

By the arrival of this century a full crisis had also arrived. Not only were Hexi Corridor industries extracting far more than the 40% of all available water that is internationally understood as an upper limit for sustainable use, by 2002 water use actually exceeded more than 100 per cent of all water theoretically available, including glacier and snowmelt, river flow and underground waters combined.[1] In Sunan, along the Hei River, water usage in 2002 was 111 per cent of what is actually available, including groundwater. This is climate change movie plotting made real.

The Yugur are classified by China’s official ethnic classification system as one of the 55 minority nationalities, as  speakers of a Turkic language related to the Uighur of Xinjiang even though they are Buddhist, specifically Tibetan Buddhist by culture. As a separate minority, they have been energetically integrated into the pedagogies of modernity, with special schools set up to teach the Chinese language and a curriculum laden with Chinese characteristics. As a result, few young Yugur can speak the Yugur language.[2]

China film buff Yun-hua Chen  tells us: “Yugur language also becomes increasingly rare, to the extent that the two children in the film, who do not speak Yugur in real life, actually had to memorise their lines according to the recording of elderly Yugur People. Through reconstruction of the endangered culture, this unostentatious film shows unflinching determination to empower voices of the nomad, the periphery, and the unheard, and offers us an unblinking look at the ugly consequences of continuous exploitation of natural resources – for which we are all fully responsible.”

There are only 10,000 Yugur in Sunan, and a  similar number of Tibetans. Han Chinese immigrants became the majority as long ago as 1960, part of Mao’s Third Front of deep inland militarisation in preparation for war with the Americans and/or the Soviets.

The Yugur have been caught up in global tides, cold wars, revolutionary class warfare, Mao’s war against nature, and most recently, compulsory relocation to urban fringes as “ecological migrants” leaving their land forever, in the name of conservation, as River Road explains early in the movie. They are part of the human river flowing to the cities, displaced from their land by the cities, industries and missile bases capturing all their water, even the underground water, for their exclusive use. They have become redundant, wasted lives, surplus to requirements of modernity.

China has taken mother water from father grassland, decisively splitting the parents from each other, declaring water is all that matters, and the land can be abandoned. In Tibet too China has declared water availability for far downstream users to be the priority, even if it means removing nomads from the best pasturelands of the Tibetan Plateau, still green and productive.

The movie’s two Yugur boys, Bartel and Adikeer, clearly are in need of both mother and father, longing both to find water and to see the grass return. This is universal. Pope Francis, in his latest encyclical, speaks of brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth. But modernity requires rigorous choices. Water trumps grass, water is mobile, grass is not as productive as a city or a missile base.

China justifies these ruthless exclusions by arguing that climate change is a vast, inexorable, global phenomenon beyond human control. All we can do is adapt, and something has to give. Invariably what has to lose out is the traditional, mobile, flexible nomadic way of life. But the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change do have point sources, and these days China is the biggest source of all.

However, the most recent scientific monitoring suggests that, for a few decades to come, China’s arid northwest, including Gansu Sunan, are benefiting from the accelerating melting of the glaciers of Tibet, that river flow, having dropped steadily over the past 50 years, has now risen, as the glaciers shrink.[3] There may be a bonanza of extra water, all captured by the dams, none left for environmental river flows, for grass to grow or even to recharge the underground water. Short-term is all that matters in today’s China.

The brothers of River Road might appear to be in a timeless land, yet they remind us frequently of who they knew, who lived along the now parched river bed only last year. The brothers may seem to have left modernity and its calculation of dollar equivalence to two decimal points, far behind, but modernity and its inexorable demands are seldom far. One boy has a toy, an inscrutableriver road 3 white hi-tech box, which turns out to be the payload of a radiosonde balloon, sent up by meteorologists in the unseen city to scour the upper skies for rain bearing clouds, or the winds that might bring them.

Along the way, the boys discover a balloon returning to earth, momentarily a playful opportunity for projecting their shadows onto its blank white surface, a shadow play within the electric shadows of this river road of mirages. In the same playful, hopeful way the brothers, now reconciled with each other and their father, walk on, up beyond the factories, cities and dams, to where there may still be pasture.

China’s indie film makers have a hard time, and little opportunity to connect with wider audiences. River Road so easily could slip back into the shadows, having had screenings only in a few film festivals. Yet it is the most compelling climate change movie yet, and it deserves to be better known. Little wonder the few who have so far seen this new film are so keen on it. It is distributed by Laurel Films International Tokyo, Japan +81 90 65213401


[1] Chao Bao and Chuang-lin Fang; Water resources constraint force on urbanization in water deficient regions: A case study of the Hexi Corridor, arid area of NW China; E C O L O G I C A L E C O N O M I C S 6 2 ( 2 0 0 7 ) 5 0 8 – 5 1 7

[2] Stephen A. BAHRY; What Constitutes Quality in Minority Education? A Multiple Embedded Case Study of Stakeholder Perspectives on Minority Linguistic and Cultural Content in School-Based Curriculum in Sunan

Yughur Autonomous County, Gansu; Frontiers of  Education in China, 2012, 7(3): 376–416

[3] LI Chang-bin, QI Jia-guo, YANG Lin-shan, YANG Wen-jin, ZHU Gao-feng and WANG Shuai-bing;The Variability of the Snow and Ice Melt in Alpine Rivers in Northwestern China; Journal of  Mountain Science,  (2014) 11(4): 884-895