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August 20, 2021

Buddha Mountain - "Director's'Cut"

buddha mountain.jpg

Guan yin shan
Li Yu - 2011
Cheng Cheng Films

I had almost forgotten that I had seen and wrote about Buddha Mountain ten years ago. Seeing the film with English subtitles instead of a subtitle free DVD primarily meant adding a few more details to the narrative that I had previously missed. The other difference is that based on what I have read, this is Li's original version of her film that premiered at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2010. What was cut from the original release version was a brief scene introducing Sylvia Chang's opera singer dismissed from a theater, and a scene involving the attempted demolition of an old apartment building occupied by poor tenants.

In the ten years since its initial release, Li Yu has continued her collaboration with producer and co-writer Fang Li and actor Fan Bingbing, with continued commercial success in China. Curiously, while the two earlier films Li made, which both encountered problems with government censors causing them to be virtually banned within their home country, are both available to stream in the U.S., the two more recent films after Buddha Mountain are currently unavailable. What makes this striking is that those newer films were both major hits aided in no small part by Fan's stardom, and Li not dealing with government approval that has become more draconian in the past few years. It would be interesting to see the newer films as Li has incorporated scenes that have pushed the boundaries regarding how sexuality is presented in Chinese films. There is very little available on Li Yu online that I can only take her word that in order to have a viable career in China, she has chosen to be pragmatic. From what I have read, while she has worked with some different actors, Li's films are still female centered. Possibly, Li has found a way to be a "smuggler" as defined by Martin Scorsese, finding ways to work around the censors who stymied the release of her first two features.

It would be no accident that Sylvia Chang would be cast as the retired Peking opera singer. Not only an accomplished actor, but also a writer and director, Chang would be an inspiration for her own female centered films. With Li, Fan Bingbing gets to act without being in period costume. Here she looks younger than 29, dressed mostly in a plaid flannel shirt, cut-off shorts and cowboy boots. Even with a strong role as in her award winning performance in I am not Madame Bovary, Fan with Li portrays women of even greater independence and self-agency.

Li began her career with documentaries which has carried over in her use of hand-held camera work. Part of Buddha Mountain includes actual footage of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, as well as the actors in the still damaged parts of Chengdu, the provincial capital. As in Dam Street and Lost in Beijing, urban areas are the sites of alienation and dislocation. Daily life is especially uncertain for those living in the margins where jobs and homes can be temporary. Water, usually a river, is part of the geography of Li's films. Following a contentious relationship between the opera singer and the trio of aimless Twenty-somethings, as sense of family is achieved at a mountainside Buddhist temple. The opera singer finds peace with herself at a waterfall. Li also has a variation of a shot in Dam Street with Fan lying submerged in a shallow part of a river.

Buddha Mountain is currently available on several streaming platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 20, 2021 06:40 AM