Women all at sea in rural saga

OILMAKER'S FAMILY (The Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls), with Siqin Gaowa, Wu Yujuan, Lei Kesheng, Chen Baoquo and Jing Lei. Directed by Xie Fei. Category II. At Columbia Classics.

XIE Fei's award-winning Oilmaker's Family has a syrupy look that should appeal to Western eyes and admirers of ''quality'' film-making, but also a theme of which the Chinese authorities would approve.

Unlike other renowned mainland art-house efforts such as Judou and Raise the Red Lantern, which earned bans for their negative depiction of China, Oilmaker's Family portrays prosperity and economic success in the rural areas.

Winner of the Golden Bear with The Wedding Banquet at the Berlin Film Festival, there is more to the film than propaganda.

The director of the existentialist Black Snow has brewed a rural drama about women all at sea as feudalism meets modernisation head on.

The message: modernisation without understanding leads to confusion and produces lost souls who are either too parochial, or uneducated to know how to deal with change.

That is true of our protagonist, Xiang Ersao (played by Siqin Gaowa), who sweats for her family like a traditional dutiful wife, but has also had a 20-year affair.

As in Xie's Girl from Hunan, which was about a daughter-in-law suffocating under feudalism, Oilmaker's Family shows a woman caught - Xiang is caught between accepted social rationale and her primal desires - between feudalism and modernisation.

The story follows her from the rural village to the big city as her oil-making family business takes off thanks to Japanese investment.

This newfound financial security enables her to enslave a poor girl to marry her mentally-handicapped son.

Since Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou received international recognition for their stylish rural dramas in the mid-1980s, female oppression has been a popular subject.

Such female oppression in the midst of Deng Xiaoping's reforms is doubly ironic as in the film Xiang herself was sold at a tender age to a man she did not love and life comes full circle when she becomes the oppressor.

Siqin, a superb technician, gives a subtle, yet complex, performance. Played out against a breathtaking landscape and underpinned by a poignant score, it all adds up to a film of sublime beauty and untold pain.