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Screening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.
Director Yu Guangyi completes his ‘Hometown Trilogy’ with “Bachelor Mountain”, following up on the documentaries “Timber Gang” (2006) and “Survival Song” (2008). The film is another set in Northern China, in the forest region of Heilongjiang Province where the traditional logging industry has been decimated by dwindling supplies. As a result, many of the local men have been left unemployed and in poverty, causing a migration of women to the cities in search of jobs and opportunities. This has created the “Bachelor Mountain” of the title, an area populated mainly by single men who have little hope of ever finding a mate.
The film, set to screen at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London, follows one such unfortunate man, San Liangzi, a 46 year old divorcee who has been alone for 12 years after losing both his job and his wife. Spending much of his time wandering the village, he has for some time been in love with Wang Meizi, a younger woman who runs an inn and who happens to be the only eligible prospect in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for San Liangzi, despite his doing endless odd jobs and tasks to try and please her, his chances of success are low, mainly due to the fact that Wang Meizi doesn’t like men.
As with Yu Guangyi’s earlier works, “Bachelor Mountain” is about survival in an impossibly harsh environment, charting a gradually disappearing way of life in a remote region of China and presenting a picture that’s a far cry from the country’s modern image of rapid economic development. A highly skilled storyteller and documentarian, he does this through an incredibly balanced mixture of the subjective and the intimate, and it’s here that the film’s real power lies. Indeed, the film is completely free of artifice or manipulation of any kind, and though it does have a definite structure and progression, it feels down to earth and naturalistic throughout. Yu’s camerawork is matter of fact and shows an almost verite style, capturing the poverty of the village and the harsh snowy mountains with a pleasing minimalism, yet in a way which finds a certain desolate beauty. Through this approach the film also uncovers moments of humour and hope, and is far from the depressing work that might be suggested by its premise or bleak setting.
Coming from the area himself, Yu has a genuine feel for and familiarity with the area, and this comes across in every frame. He certainly has a great subject in San Liangzi, and the film offers a truly in-depth look into his life, following him around and charting every aspect of his meagre existence. The barrier between director and subject is frequently broken down by conversations rather than interviews, with San Liangzi laying bare his soul and dreams in a near confessionary manner, often by candlelight. As a protagonist the poor man is sympathetic and fascinating, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him as he makes countless sacrifices for Wang Meizi, turning down better jobs in other areas and even going so far as to refuse trips to visit prostitutes with the other men in case she finds out. Passive and refusing to tell her how he feels, he comes across as an innocent soul, not entirely unhappy with his lot – or at least unwilling or too lost to try and change things.
The film also benefits from spending some time following Wang Meizi and by learning more about her life and her side of the story. In her own way every bit as interesting as San Liangzi, she too is a powerful symbol of the changing times, and this adds further depth to the film. Although Yu never properly explores it, the issue of her trying to drum up more business for the inn through environmental tourism is in itself intriguing, and suggests future development for the area.
However, this might have proved a distraction from the film’s deeply personal portrait of San Liangzi and his life, and “Bachelor Mountain” is a compelling work that confirms Yu Guangyi as one of the most talented and visionary of the new wave of Chinese documentary makers. A fitting finale for his ‘Hometown Trilogy’, it offers a powerful counterpoint to other images of modern China, and does so without fuss or pretentiousness.
Yu Guangyi (director)