In the Chinese town of Fuyang, an extended family of four brothers go about their day-to-day lives. Over the course of four seasons, they face challenges of work, the pressures of making ends meet, and the declining health of their much-loved and elderly mother.
Gu Xioagang’s debut feature as writer and director is a deliberately slow-paced family drama. It bounces back and forth in casual fashion between one Chinese family – a father caring for a disabled son, a daughter defying her parents to marry the man she loves over the one arranged for her, one brother getting unwillingly dragged into another’s criminal business, and so on. Nothing sparks the imagination, but it does uniformly ring with truth. Gu has assembled a story of realistic lives in a hugely evocative environment, and given his audience time to fully immerse themselves there.
Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains shares its title with 14th century artist Huang Gongwang’s famous seven-metre painting – one of the few surviving works from Huang, and even it has been burned into two pieces, one in Hangzhou and the other in Taipei. The lengthy work was intended to be read like a scroll, from one end to the other, revealing all manner of fine detail and distinctive highlights. So it is with Gu’s film: deliberately styled after its namesake, with a strong sense of place and a two-and-a-half hour running time. The fine detail of everyday life, and the highlights of each distinctive character, are showcased in a marvellous style.
The pin that binds the entire Yu family together is the matriarch (Du Hongjun), who commands the respect of all four sons despite her gradual slide into dementia. It is a beautiful and sensitive performance by Du, particularly in her relationship with granddaughter Guxi (Peng Luqi). Indeed much of the film’s emotional heavy-lifting is undertaken between the two women. Also very powerful is younger brother Youjin (Sun Zhangjian) and his interactions with his son (Sun Zikang), who has Down’s Syndrome. It is a strong portrayal of disability in China, offering neither a maudlin tragedy or a hopelessly uplifting drama. Sun’s performance is authentic and strong.
You cannot fault Gu’s ambition: this debut feature has taken two years to shoot. He exploits a large and varied cast, each of whom delivers a grounded and readily identifiable performance. So confident is the film’s delivery that it ends after two-and-a-half hours with the caption: “End of Volume I”. According to Gu he intends another two entire features of this – whether the story of Fuyang or this specific family it is not yet clear. Stylistically the film feels less in place with independent Chinese cinema, and more in line with the films of Taiwanese filmmakers like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. There is a captivating beauty to the work, and a very strong presentation of the surrounding landscape. What makes this so remarkable is Gu’s comparative lack of experience. Not only is it his first film, he is not even a formally trained filmmaker having studied both marketing and costume design instead.
The film pops out in brief, powerful moments: Guxi walks along the riverside, keeping pace with her fiancee as he swims in the river. A set of apartment blocks are torn down and demolished in one lingering, melancholic panning shot. There is a gamble being waged here – that the small incidental detail in and around Fuyang will sustain the audience’s interest – and by film’s end in genuinely has. This is a subtle and powerful – and critically visual – work of feature filmmaking.
Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is screening at the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival on the 12th and 16th of August. For more information click here.