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Acclaimed Mainland Chinese director and international film festival favourite Jia Zhangke serves as producer on “Mr Tree” for debut helmer Han Jia, who worked as an assistant on “Still Life”. The film was the first from Jia’s new Wings Project, designed to help finance and encourage new film makers, and covers many of the themes tackled in his own efforts, chiefly urbanisation and change in modern China. An at times strange and lyrical piece of art house cinema, the film enjoyed a highly successful run at various festivals around the world, and has seen Han already being hailed by many as an important new voice.
Wang Baoqiang (“Blind Shaft”) takes the lead as Shu, the titular Mr Tree (Shu being the Mandarin word for tree), a somewhat mentally challenged man who lives in a rural village which is soon to be demolished to make way for a coal mine. The film follows him about his daily life as he looks for a job and tries to get involved with organising his cousin’s wedding, meeting and falling for deaf-mute massage parlour worker Xiaomei (actress Tan Zhuo, also in Lou Ye’s “Spring Fever”). She hesitantly returns his affections, though on the eve of their wedding, Shu is struck by visions of his dead father and brother, who bring with them what appear to be dire predictions and warnings, propelling him into the unlikely role of prophet.
Although the influence of Jia Zhangke, and of particular “Still Life” unsurprisingly looms large, Han Jia’s “Mr Tree” is very much its own film and a highly original and complex piece of work. As with Jia’s film, the main issues here are the changing face of the Chinese countryside, the disappearance of a way of life, and the inevitability of coming urbanisation and desolation. Given the offbeat nature of the plot, this is dealt with in metaphorical rather than overtly political fashion, and this works very well to produce a mixture of the surreal and the grimly grounded. The film does come across as a straight-faced satire of sorts which is both funny and bleak, for example in the opening scenes of the mining company driving a car through the village, offering people television sets and luxury goods in reward for abandoning their homes and moving away.
Although the film starts off looking as if it might follow a conventional narrative, like Shu it soon wanders off, charting his seemingly aimless encounters with various other locals without anything in the way of explanation. It’s not until he meets Xiaomei and decides to try and court her that a plot of sorts takes hold, though again once his visions begin, the film ventures deep into surrealism, leaping around in time and featuring visits from the dead. Han keeps things very ambiguous as to exactly what is going on during the final act, and it’s unclear what is flashback or fantasy, and the film does get a bit hard to decipher towards its inconclusive end. Whilst this may frustrate viewers looking for something more traditional, Han handles the proceedings with great confidence, and the film benefits from its lack of an obvious clear statement as it allows him to aim more for creating more of a feel and resonance. Shu’s visions are a mix of the domestic and vaguely apocalyptic, and this makes the film atmospheric and frequently tense, with a real sense of foreboding and of the crushing weight of a devastating future throughout.
Despite its purposeful vagaries and refusal to provide clear cut answers, Han manages to hold the interest, in part thanks to a strong central character in Shu. Wang Baoqiang is excellent in the lead, doing a great job of playing the idiot savant and possible mystic, and making him likeable and engaging without ever obviously aiming for viewer sympathy. Indeed, his behaviour is so odd, and the line between mental illness and tormented sooth saying is so blurred, that it’s difficult to know how to read him as a protagonist or cipher, though this fits in with the film as a whole, and is intriguing rather than obstructive. At the same time, the film does have a very human side, Shu’s relationship with Xiaomei being touching and having a certain innocence and poetry, and the way in which she gradually warm to him, whilst about as far from a conventional screen romance as can be, is moving and believable.
Han’s direction is down to earth, and the film’s artistic concerns are neatly balanced with a strong naturalistic aesthetic sense, resulting in an air of convincing realism, even during the stranger and more dream like stretches. The film features a great deal of local colour and some fascinating depictions of wedding rituals, and offers a more authentic seeming portrait of rural China than often seen on screen. Combined with the barren and desolate landscapes, a far cry from the image of happy peasants toiling in the fields, this makes for a powerful and far reaching study of a community in chaos and decline.
Although undeniably hard work at times, “Mr Tree” is a superb and challenging piece of modern Chinese art house cinema. Han Jia is clearly a talent to keep an eye on in future, this quite stunning debut living up to any comparisons with the works of Jia Zhangke.
Jie Han (director) / Jie Han (screenplay)
CAST: Zhuo Tan … Xiaomei
Baoqiang Wang … Shu