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July 01, 2011

Buddha Mountain

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Guan yin shan
Li Yu - 2011
Guosi Culture All Region DVD

I overlooked that when I ordered my DVD of Buddha Mountain, that although it was a region free version, it also did not have English subtitles. Rather than getting upset, I decided to watch the DVD anyways, to see what I could get out of watching a film without knowing what people were saying, missing details of the narrative. It's not the first time I've watched a film in another language without subtitles. I even have a couple of Japanese DVDs with no subtitles, although they happen to be historically based, about the Buddhist priest, Nichiren, a story with which I have much familiarity. There was also the Thai film, Somtum, with had enough English making that film fairly easy to follow.

One advantage of seeing a movie in a language not spoken or understood is that it forces the viewer to try and pay more attention to what is happening on the screen. The best moments in Buddha Mountain are dialogue free. Most involve Fan Bingbing. In one scene, Fan, seeking to avenge her fat friend who was beaten by a gang of young thugs, confronts the gang leader. Taking a glass bottle, she breaks it on her forehead, blood seeping down her face. If that wasn't enough to let the gang know that she means business, she grabs one of the gang girls, locking lips with her, effectively forcing the gang to sheepishly apologize for messing with the wrong person.

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There are several scenes of Fan, with Berlin Chen and Fei Long, traveling on the open air cars of freight trains. Close ups of Fan show her long hair whipping across her face. One very dreamlike image is of Fan and Chen lying together in an identified outdoor space, about to be engulfed by water. There is a hazy image of their hands entwined. No dialogue is needed to follow the opening scene with Fan, singing in a bar, losing control of her microphone, which injures one unlucky patron in a sensitive area.

The story is about the three friends, living marginal existences, moving into the spare rooms of a retired opera singer, played by Sylvia Chang. Fan and Chen have left broken families, while Chang is mourning the death of her son. As memorial, she keeps the damaged car her son was driving. After a few contentious encounters, the three friends and the opera singer find solace in each other. A scene with the car brought back totally repaired might be to obviously symbolic. The car is also the means by which the four go to the Buddha Mountain of the title.

The film is shot entirely with a handheld camera. Even though the camera moves, with only a few relatively still shots, even when the camera pans back and forth between characters, it has none of the obtrusiveness that seems to plague many other films that rely on this same visual tact. One of the nicest shots is a tilt up following the source of a mountainside waterfall.

The film was primarily shot in the city of Chendu, in Sichuan Province. At one point, the characters observe an urban area destroyed by the earthquake of 2008. While the magnitude of destruction is something beyond what a handful of people can repair, the group works to restore a small Buddhist shrine. Buddha Mountain is an intimate film. Li Yu's message would be that even in the face of problems that seem overwhelming, even the smallest kindnesses are meaningful.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 1, 2011 08:39 AM