Critics Week closes with the first of a planned trilogy from debut director Gu Xiaogang
Dir: Gu Xiaogang. China. 2019. 152 mins
Director Gu Xiaogang explores his own, rapidly evolving home town of Fuyang, in the South East of China as the subject of his first feature, which takes its title from a fourteenth century Chinese scroll painting by Huang Gongwang. Exquisitely photographed, the film builds a slow-burning portrait of community in which modernity and tradition coexist, using the focus of several generations of one family as its anchor. It’s defiantly undramatic, but, like the languid river water that flows through the town, this leisurely approach delivers unexpected rewards.
’here’s a visual drama here which is frequently more emphatic than anything which unfolds in the story
It’s an ambitious undertaking for a first feature. Not only was the film shot over two years, in order to reflect the town in all four seasons, Dwelling In The Fuchun Mountains is conceived as the first part of a trilogy titled ’A Thousand Miles Along the Eastern Yangtze’. It’s a strikingly beautiful work; there’s a visual drama here which is frequently more emphatic than anything which unfolds in the story. As such, it should attract further attention on the festival circuit, following on from its slot as the closing film of Critics’ Week. Comparisons with the work of Taiwan’s Edward Yang will position Gu as a talent to watch in new Chinese cinema.
Family is central to the story, which opens with the birthday celebration of an elderly matriarch whose four sons dance in attendance. But when they are not paying their respects, strained conversations hint at tensions between the brothers, stemming from debts and duties which are unfulfilled. Meanwhile, two of the grandchildren are of marriageable age. One son has dutifully accepted his parents’ suggested bride; his female cousin however is lobbying to marry for love, against the vigorously expressed wishes of her mother.
Wealth, and the lack of it, is a preoccupation. The middle brother’s debts are a source of shame and embarrassment. When he turns to illicit means to make money, his oldest brother lectures him sternly: “The more tripe you eat, the more likely you are to eat shit.”
The title is not the only element that the film borrows from the scroll painting. There is something of the classical Chinese painting tradition in the way the the picture depicts seemingly mundane vignettes with such meticulous, painstaking detail that they are elevated into moments of real significance. The score also blends past and present, with a Chinese flute motif which sounds as though it has been piped in from centuries before alongside a slicker, more modern approach later on.
Gu favours long takes and a camera which drifts through the scene. The lens rarely gets closer than a mid shot, meaning that even the most jarring moment – when heavies seeking to collect a debt from the middle brother smash up the restaurant of the oldest – is observed and experienced from a distance. The camera is often eloquent in a way that the dialogue, delivered bluntly by non-professional actors, sometimes isn’t. One shot in particular speaks volumes about the evolution of a small town which was once the home of poets and artists but is set host the 2022 Asian Games. As two characters walk through a traditional Chinese garden, the camera gradually pulls back to reveal a skyline bristling with cranes; the past and the future are acknowledged in a single shot.
Production companies: Dadi film, Qu Jing Pictures, Factory Gate Films
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Producers: Huang Xufeng, Zhang Qun, Li Jia, Song Jiafei, Suey Chen, Ning Xiaoxiao, Liang Ying
Screenplay: Gu Xiaogang
Editing: Liu Xinzhu
Cinematography: Yu Ninghui, Deng Xu
Production Design: Zhou Xingyu
Music: Dou Wei
Cast: Qian Youfa, Wang Fengjuan, Zhang Renliang, Zhang Guoying, Sun Zhangjian, Sun Zhangwei, Du Hongjun, Peng Luqi, Zhuang Yi, Sun Zikang