Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Whole Other Way of Being: Yang Rui’s Crossing the Mountain

On May 15 I attended the Beijing debut of Yang Rui's first dramatic feature, the strange, experimental  Crossing the Mountain, screened as part of BC MOMA's ongoing “Young Chinese Filmmakers” showcase.

From its opening moments this bizarre, elliptical tale is heavy with a languid tropical atmosphere reminiscent of the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at Canne just last week). The similarity in atmosphere is not surprising, given Crossing the Mountain was shot in Yunnan, the province in China's far south not far from north Thailand and bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma.

The first thing we see is a quote – “This truth comes from inside me” – hinting that this will be a movement into another kind of subjectivity rather than a conventional narrative journey. Cut to an apparently empty swathe of thick jungle, bathed in broken sunlight. After a time we discern movement and a squad of armed troops emerges from the undergrowth, moving stealthily past the camera before disappearing off screen.

Later a young man in a village tries to coax a signal from a karaoke DVD, but all he gets is static and the distant echo of a song heard through white noise. “It still sounds beautiful,” he comments to his girlfriend.

The village feels like a place outside time – or at least outside the linear temporality of modern, urban existence. A sense of abundant life, rotting death and overwhelming entropy fills every frame, with the world beyond barely registering as a faint, distorted signal.

As the film moves through scenes of village life it becomes apparent that the various sequences are  linked by a tapestry of visual and verbal associations. A discussion about the effects of different mushrooms growing on the forest floor cuts to a man riding a motorcycle on a country road, his helmeted head shaped like a toadstool. A chat between locals about the way heads were once valued for certain crops echoes a story told by an ancient lady about her lover being beheaded as he walked  a mountain path. Sounds from one scene bleed into another, as people constantly move in and out of the undergrowth, becoming distinct for a moment before merging again with their steamy surrounds.

A vague narrative does become apparent late in the film, linked to a series of explosions we see play out along a hillside. It feels like an imposition, the sketch of an idea remembered late in the day, as if the director suddenly remembered two-third of the way through the film she was “supposed to tell a story.”

At the Q&A after the screening, one viewer commented he would have preferred Yang Rui to avoid narrative altogether. The director revealed that she had originally planned to have a much stronger story running through the film and shot it on that basis. The first cut reflected this, but in the process of re-editing she gradually whittled her tale back to almost nothing, leaving only a faint trace of her original idea. If Yang Rui had followed through on this non-narrative approach to the end I think she may have ended up with a more coherent work. As it stands Crossing the Mountain feels like an intriguing experiment that isn't quite sure what it's trying to do.

It's a brave first feature (Yang has apparently previously made documentaries) and at it's best Crossing the Mountain allows us to sink into the sense of time and space of a pre-modern society existing on the hazy edges of a rapidly modernising nation. As such, it's a reminder of cinema's ability to not only tell a story, but transport us into a whole other way of being in the world.

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