For the past two decades, Chinese independent filmmakers have mostly harnessed their country’s provincial angst to produce scathing social-realist dramas, an approach which propelled auteurs like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai to international fame. But a new crop of aspiring auteurs have lately sought to go beyond gritty realism in bringing small-town ennui to the screen.
Among them is Yang Heng, whose latest (and fourth) feature is a slow, surreal and stupendously beautiful piece about those left behind by China’s onward and upward march toward prosperity. Revolving around a man’s experiences upon returning to his god-forsaken rural hometown, Ghost in the Mountains could be seen as China’s contribution to the long-running trend of film noir makeovers favored by international slow-cinema auteurs.
A slow, spiritual and surreal take on provincial angst.
With a more tangible narrative here than in his previous outings — especially when compared to his last film, the listless-youth drama Lake August – Ghosts should sustain a significant post-Berlinale afterlife following its premiere in the festival’s Panorama sidebar.
The film begins with a brief, enigmatic prologue set on the side of the mountain that involves two helmet-wearing street punks, two wads of cash, a corpse, a temple and a white horse. More than just a play on storytelling — it’s a sequence that will be repeated, albeit from another perspective, at the the end of the film — these people and things also symbolize every virtue and vice appearing in the story.
But the story proper begins with Liu Lao (or “Six,” per the subtitles, played by Tang Shenggang), a down-and-out 30-something returning home after more than a decade of slaving away in the big city. But he soon discovers he’s in for even worse. Out on the country road leading into town, he is quickly stripped of all his possessions. His childhood friend Jie (Liang Yu) — whose ambition in life is to commit a heist and purchase a bride — tells him that their buddies are now either dead or running narcotics in the China-Burma borderlands. Six’s former girlfriend (Shang Yutong) then meets him for the last time and laments their past relationship before her marriage to a rich man she met while working in the city.
All these meetings and conversations — plus Six’s wanderings around the derelict landscapes of his hometown — are shown in painterly, meticulously-framed shots, giving everything an otherworldly quality. But the story takes an ethereal turn when Six is hurt in a car crash and wakes up in the care of two monks in a cave in the forest. One of them is Six’s former teacher, who joined the priesthood because there are no more children coming to school; the other is younger and mute, having refused to talk after claiming to have seen the Buddha.
Confused about his life, Six asks the enlightened monk for advice — who, true to his vow, refuses to impart any wisdom. Happening at around the two-hour-plus film’s midpoint, this spiritual exchange — or non-exchange, to be exact — is a harbinger of Six’s pending downfall. Lost in a land of abject cynicism and non-existent human relationships — a running gag sees people drifting off midconversation because they “got to take this call” on their cellphone – Six’s life slowly disintegrates, with each of his acts contribution to a deadly web of misunderstood intentions and misplaced revenge.
What’s impressive and intriguing is how Yang and his DP, Lyu Songyue, dress all this hopelessness and despair in the most lavish of imagery, some of which — the pans, the dollies, the ultrawide shots of mountains and fields — bear striking resemblance to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s noir-makeover Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Just like the Turkish master, Yang manages to illustrate his characters’ anxiety and alienation in the most poetic manner possible — an approach which at once highlights the irony of human existence, but also how these supposedly cold-blooded creatures are actually melancholic victims of circumstances they have long given up trying to understand.
Production Company: Beijing Yiyi Films, Nezha Brothers Pictures, Xiang Xi Yang Heng Productions
Cast: Tang Shenggang, Liang Yu, Shang Yutong
Director-screenwriter-editor: Yang Heng
Producers: Bi Shanyi, Yang Heng
Director of photography: Lyu Songye
Production designer: Shi Lei
Music: Wang Kai
In Hunanese Mandarin