Director Gaopeng Tang‘s feature debut, The Road Not Taken is an off-kilter road movie with mob film influences that finds its heart in a misanthropic character. The film opens with Yong (Xuebing Wang), an ostrich farmer who’s just hit a sheep with his truck. He exits the truck, throws the sheep in the back, where we see a kid standing outside of a cage. The scene is an in media res beginning, as we then flashback to how these two met.
Yong is an acerbic boot licker who hates kids, is estranged from his wife, but owes the local mafia/loan sharks money for setting up his ostrich farm. Yong is the cliched fool, villain, and friend rolled into one. Charming and annoying, and very little in between.
He’s left a kid by the local loan shark to take care of for a couple days. It’s some ‘repayment’ for his overdrawn bills (and the fact that he put his ex-wife’s apartment up for collateral to finance the nefarious loans). Unbeknownst to Yong, this kid has been kidnapped from a local business man as blackmail.
Set in China’s Gobi desert, the film spends most its time on the road. As the films draws on, the once adversarial Yong and kid become closer and we morph into a buddy film, as Yong teaches the kid survival tips on how not to be bullied.
Along the way they bump into Mei (Yili Ma), a badass truck driver who lends them a helping hand while they’re hunted by the loan shark and Mei’s stalker.
The film features well drawn characters, except for Mei who’s reduced to the “I can’t figure out why my husband” left me card. Still, The Road Not Taken is equal parts funny, thrilling, and heartfelt.