Yang Pingdao’s “E Huang Mountain” is a gritty yet highly artistic Chinese independent drama set in the small town of the title, an area which legends claim to have been the hometown of the gods. With the deities having long since departed, the town is now inhabited by mere mortals, who have brought with them pollution, crime and unhappiness. The film focuses on the people who live there now, following the stories of the son of a local factory boss, a downtrodden worker, a young college girl, a gang member, and a jobless gambler. During the course of the film their winding paths intersect, their fates seeming to be tied together and to the town, leaving them with only two options – to escape or to continue drifting through life.
“E Huang Mountain”, which won Best Discovery at The 4th Xian China International Folk Video Festival in 2013, is a great example of the kind of raw though powerful independent filmmaking that’s starting to appear more frequently in China, Yang Pingdao clearly being a director with talent and vision. Though a fiction feature, the film was shot in a naturalistic and grounded style, so much so that it often feels like a documentary and that the characters are real rather than being played by actors. At the same time, Yang clearly has artistic leanings, and frequently works in surreal visual anecdotes, giving the film an experimental or dream-like air that effectively enhances the impression that his cast are lost and directionless, meandering through their lives. The town itself is a nondescript limbo surrounded by the misty and mysterious countryside, which again makes for a sense of being trapped and caught up in the almost magnetic monotony of the larger society. It’s an at times hypnotic viewing experience as a result, and even during the stretches where little happens beyond the pettiness of everyday life, it always holds the interest.
At the same time though, the film also has a strong script and some subtly engaging character writing that really brings its diverse cast of wanderers and miscreants to life. While it does indeed drift, there’s a definite method to Yang’s structure, and the film gradually and quietly pulls the viewer into its many stories without fuss or artificial drama. Though at times abstract and eschewing obvious answers or explanations, the film has a great deal going on, with moments of gang violence and tension, as well as love, jealousy and desperation. Yang touches on several different forms and genres without settling on any one in particular, turning the film into something far more interesting and nuanced as a result. Oddly enough, despite its taking place primarily in the one town and its locale, the film has the feel of an existential road movie, its characters undertaking personal and spiritual journeys as they struggle to make sense of their lives and to break free of the unseen chains that bind them.
(“E Huang Mountain” screens in London on Sunday 11th May as part of the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival.)