Times Staff Writer

"Life" (screening tonight only as part of the Nuart's Chinese Film Festival) is a dangerously pretentious title for any movie, but Wu Tianming's epic tale has a disarming simplicity. Set in the rugged Shaanxi Province, it's a heart-tugging love story with timeless appeal, much local color and strong contemporary political implications.

Its handsome hero (Xhou Lijiang) has lost his teaching position to another young man whose father has political clout, and he bitterly returns to helping his elderly father till the hard soil. Yet his downfall and its cruel loss of face gives a lovely neighbor girl (Wu Yufang) the confidence to dare to declare her love for him. He's genuinely touched but is above all concerned with maneuvering an escape to the city.

Director Wu Tianming and writer Lu Yao comment on the lingering corruption of the Cultural Revolution both in its hero's unjust fate and his devious attempt to overcome it, yet they do not judge, presenting Xhou as a classic instance of an ambitious man not appreciating a woman's selfless love until it's too late. Xhou is persuasive in an often unsympathetic role, and Wu Yufang has the radiantly innocent courage of Olivia De Havilland's Melanie in "Gone With the Wind." There's a great "Stella Dallas"-like moment when Wu, who's gone to visit Xhou in the city, realizes that Xhou is bored with her talk of a pig and its new litter. Paired with "Life," which is China's official entry into this year's Oscar sweepstakes, is a revival of Wu Tianming's equally fine "River Without Buoys," a journey into the oppressive decade of the Cultural Revolution which unfolds as three men travel by raft down a river in Xi'an.

The Nuart is premiering (on Wednesday and Thursday only) "Return to Waterloo," an hour-long musical fantasy written and directed by the Kinks' Ray Davies. Davies takes us into the mind of a middle-aged commuter (Ken Colley) aboard a train bound for London's Waterloo Station. Although the film has a certain visual and structural flair--films set aboard moving trains usually do--neither "Return to Waterloo" nor the songs Davies wrote for it are very inspired. Luckily, it shares the bill with a revival of "Quadrophenia." Information: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.

The Center for Constitutional Rights' "For Our Eyes Only" series concludes this weekend at the Fox International with Susanna Styron and Pamela Jones' "In Our Own Backyards: Uranium Mining in the U.S."; Joan Churchill and Nicholas Broomfield's "Soldier Girls" (Saturday at 1 p.m.); and Jacki Ochs and Daniel Keller's "The Secret Agent" and Pamela Yates and Tom Sigel's "Resurgence: The Movement for Equality vs. the Ku Klux Klan" (Sunday at 1 p.m.).

These excellent, jolting documentaries have been been denied certification by the United States Information Agency for distribution abroad on the grounds that foreign audiences may misunderstand or misinterpret them. (A lawsuit is in the works.) Yet four more unequivocal exposes of American folly and evil would be hard to come by; their bluntly critical tone could scarcely be mistaken by anyone. At issue is a simple matter of freedom of expression.

"In Our Own Backyards" and "The Secret Agent" are damning indictments of the government's unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of reckless technology upon humanity, animal life and the environment--nuclear waste and the herbicide Agent Orange, respectively. "Soldier Girls" reveals the Army's use of harassment and degradation in its basic training of women recruits. "Resurgence" deftly contrasts a group of black women striking for better wages and working conditions in a Mississippi chicken-processing plant with a group of North Carolina Ku Klux Klan members leading a hate-filled struggle for white supremacy, fed by fears of blacks' economic gains. Information: (213) 396-4215.

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