Sunday, June 19, 2011

Corrosive Obsession – Yu Guangyi's Bachelor Mountain

San Liangzi in Yu Guangyi's quietly moving documentary Bachelor Mountain, screened at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Yu Guangyi's documentary Bachelor Mountain – caught at this year's Hong Kong Film Festival – beautifully captures the space where individual temperament and social circumstances intercept, forging a documentary that is both subtle in its social critique and moving in its portrayal of unrequited love.

Bachelor Mountain opens with a shot that's become standard in Chinese independent cinema – the isolated individual dwarfed by harsh surrounds. We see a man knee deep in snow, wrestling with a timber log. Inter-titles introduce San Liangzi, a 46-year-old laid-off worker. We move to a group of women eating on the mountainside in the open air, their breath steamy in the icy surrounds. Centuries of logging have left the slopes largely bereft of timber, and recent environmental regulations have delivered the final blow to the local timber industry, leaving most of the local men without regular work. The women cheerfully explain that most of their number have left to seek better lives in the cities. “We'd all leave if we could,” one of them states frankly.

San Liangzi is one of those left behind with no money, no job and no wife. We follow his morning routine in his dark, dirty abode, where the only heating is an open fire. He hikes across his village to help out with chores at the home of Wang Weizi, a feisty 29-year-old woman who has converted part of her parents' courtyard home into a small inn. San has nursed a crush on Wang for a decade, although the studied casualness with which she regards his presence suggests he hasn't gotten far in his advances.

Initially San comes across as a gentle, if slightly simple giant, but as the film progresses it becomes apparent that his reticence and bulky frame hide a deeply sensitive nature. “I haven't been with a woman for ten years,” he tells the director matter-of-factly. Yet even if Wang Weizi turns him down in the end, he claims he won't regret the decade he's spent chasing her. In an age that puts so much store in economic relations, San's dedication is endearing, and even admirable in its selflessness – although we're left wondering what being “turned down” would mean for him, since Wang appears to have no romantic interest in him at all after a decade of pursuit.

By her own admission, Wang is focused entirely on her business. “It's an aftereffect of being poor,” she explains to her parents. “You think too much about money.” We can hardly fault her for wanting to improve her situation. Accepted into a special sports school at age sixteen, she had to forgo the opportunity because of her parent's inability to pay the fees. And although the town appears to attract a steady stream of tourists in summer – perhaps drawn by the mountainous surrounds – it's clear the area is a backwater, left high and dry by the economic tide that has forcefully swept China's major cities into the 21st century.

There's also the small matter of Wang's sexual orientation. Her utter disinterest not only in San, but in men in general, implies San may be barking up the wrong tree, and at an awkward New Year dinner one of his friends comes out and says what we've begun to suspect. “You're never going to change her,” he tells San gently. “Because she likes women, not men.” San simply mumbles that they don't know her like he does and changes the subject. By this stage of the film, however, San's endearing devotion is starting to look increasingly like a willful, self-defeating blindness.

When tourist season arrives, he quietly tramps over to Wang’s inn every night after working all day on a construction site. As urban tour groups indulge in hedonistic rituals of dancing and drinking around him, San wordlessly labours into the night, completely without recompense, ignored by both Wang and the partying throng. The scene graphically illustrates China's urban-rural divide, but San's willingness to be exploited is more disturbing than the obvious social gap between him and the tourists.

Although San's passivity is frustrating, it comes as a shock when we follow him home one night and finally find his bitterness laid bare. Stumbling down darkened village lanes in the driving rain he rages to himself, taut with impotent rage, cursing Wang Weizi' name and her imperviousness. Is he drunk? Or has he simply gone mad with longing and loneliness? Eventually he reaches home and collapses into an exhausted sleep.

A final inter-title tells us that when Yu Guangyi returned to the town a year later, Wang's business was booming and San's love remained unchanged. He was still working at the inn every night.

San Liangzi's humble home in Yu Guangyi's Bachelor Mountain.

Yu’s film is resolutely non-judgmental in its treatment of his subjects, from San's obsession to Wang Weizi's cool indifference. Her relationship with San is clearly exploitative, but Wang could never be described as devious, or even manipulative, since she gives San no reason to think she has any romantic attachment to him and makes it clear she doesn't want to pay him for the work he does at the inn. Her economic situation is only mildly better than his, and she is at least making an effort to improve her life, which San seems unwilling or unable to do.

Yet we are left to ponder the social and economic conditions that foster such a mercenary approach to life and relations, as well as the personal distortions engendered by circumstances that have left the mountain stripped of vegetation, the community devoid of young women, and men like San stranded with virtually no hope of a steady income or family life in their hometowns. Is it this situation that has produced San's corrosive obsession? Or is it borne of an innate foible in this personality?

Bachelor Mountain achieves a rare and subtle balance between the social and the personal, probing the cost of China's city-centric mode of development through the psychology of a kind, but deeply flawed individual caught up in a world he seems singularly ill-equipped to deal with. Given San's almost saint-like selflessness, his inability to forge a life or find a partner is a sad indictment of the materialist times that we live in.

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