Lao Liu returns to his home in Yunan province for the first time in many years. The town is all but abandoned now: of his friends only A Jie still lives there. An ex-girlfriend is by chance passing through on her way back to Shenzen to get married. With no children left to teach, Lao’s old school teacher has moved up to the mountains to become a monk.
Ghost in the Mountains, from Chinese director Yang Heng, is an enormously frustrating film through which to sit. It is intelligently plotted, and deals with a very powerful theme in contemporary China – the rural-to-urban migration, and what it does to the small communities that get almost entirely vacated by residents seeking a better life. It also makes tremendous use of its vividly green, misty landscape. It is also structurally quite inventive, telling its story through a series of incredibly long, slow takes. It is filled with prolonged moments of silence that stretch out to a meditative degree.
While there is certainly plenty to admire, actually sitting through the film from beginning to end proves a challenge. It is slow: really slow, of such an interminable length and pace that it simply stretches patience beyond breaking point. It is also incredibly repetitive. Scenes open in silence, eventually revealing two characters sitting or standing together. Inevitably they will light cigarettes and begin smoking. At some point, halfway through a long and sparse conversation, somebody’s mobile phone will ring and they’ll excuse themselves to take the call. So despite it being fair to describe Ghost in the Mountains as a clever and thoughtfully composed arthouse drama, it is also just as fair to describe it as two hours and fifteen minutes of bored Chinese people lighting cigarettes.
It is nominally a crime film, although it takes a ridiculously long time to build up to the central crime. At some point in the middle of the film it becomes clear that the first lengthy scene takes place after the bulk of the story, and that the viewer has been watching a flashback. Once the story actually catches up to and then moves beyond that critical scene, the film actually picks up to some extent with a small amount of drama and a fitful line in absurd comedy. It does not last. The film ends on a fairly dull, unsatisfactory note.
It is difficult to judge the cast’s performances because they have so little to do. Like most independent Chinese dramas it does away with a musical score entirely. The photography is inarguably beautiful, and given the lack of action in most scenes it is often easiest to simply turn off and soak in the slightly unsettling atmosphere. There is a growing fan base for ‘slow cinema’ that may find an enormous amount of worth in Ghost in the Mountains. It is definitely a film crafted by talented people. It is also such a chore. It makes you work very, very hard for what is ultimately a rather small amount of entertainment.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.