Li Yu’s fourth feature “Buddha Mountain” is, among many other things, a film of generational collision. One side of the divide is represented by Nan Feng (Fan Bingbing), Ding Bo (Chen Bolin), and Fei Zao/”Fatso” (Fei Long), three young friends who live in an aimless, perpetual present. On the other side is Chang (Sylvia Chang), a Peking Opera performer who tries desperately to cling to a past violently ripped from her through the car accident that killed her son. The two generations are yanked together when the three friends rent a room in Chang’s home after their previous dwelling is marked for demolition. The generations’ lifestyles immediately clash; the friends’ all-night partying does not at all mesh with Chang’s 6:30 a.m. daily ritual of opera practice.
“Buddha Mountain” is set in post-earthquake Chengdu, Sichuan Province, evoking a China that has had large swaths of the country destroyed through causes both natural (earthquakes) and man-made (demolition and development). The young people who live here are irresponsible, careless and self-destructive, but so are the adults ostensibly in charge of them. Nan Feng, whose perpetually-drunk father abuses his wife, has come to Chengdu to earn money and free herself from the oppressive atmosphere of her birthplace. Ding Bo’s father is a recalcitrant gambler about to remarry his second wife after his first wife’s death, which only increases his son’s resentment. Fei Zao’s unseen father was also abusive toward him, and the younger generation continues the abuse by bullying him.
The three friends’ behavior proves illusory, as their personal traumas slowly subsume them, no matter how much they attempt to keep them at bay. At one point, a young man asks, “In this big world, who cares about us?” This lack of societal nurture engenders an attitude of every man/woman for him/herself, and this is most pertinently illustrated in the film when the three friends settle a debt by absconding with Chang’s hidden stash, replacing it with money for the dead. Soon, however, as the hostility between young and older dissolve, their consciences demand that they earn money to repay her. Real money used by the living is forced to live with dead people’s currency, a mirror reflecting the cohabitation of the living with the dead that echoes thematically throughout the film.
The ruined landscape wrought by the Sichuan earthquake forms an evocative backdrop to the action in “Buddha Mountain,” reinforced by some rather unnecessarily shoehorned-in actual documentary footage of the earthquake. The demolished buildings that Chang and the young friends travel through represent the rudderless uncertainty that the characters are thrust into. Chang deeply fears this uncertainty, while Nan Feng, Ding Bo and Fei Zao embrace it, or at least appear to. The peace they all seek, or at least a measure of it, can be found at the titular “Buddha Mountain,” the home of a monastery and the place where the landlady at last finds some resolution to her loneliness, though the exact form this resolution takes is left somewhat ambiguous.
Li Yu and her regular screenwriter Fang Li have created a multifaceted, complex snapshot of China that involves destruction and rebirth, offering characters who are neither completely virtuous nor villainous. Li Yu gets up close and personal with her characters, her camera always in very close proximity to them in the spaces in which she places them – tiny rooms filed with bric-a-brac, karaoke bars, narrow alleyways –everyone adopting defensive stances like prizefighters pushed up against the ropes. The oppressive heat that assaults the characters is nature’s manifestation of the weight of the personal histories that wound them, but also bring them closer together and allow them the opportunity for healing.
Li Yu’s films incisively critique contemporary Chinese society, a stance that hasn’t exactly endeared her to the censors; her previous features “Fish and Elephant,” “Dam Street” and “Lost in Beijing” have all been officially banned by the Chinese government. Although (much like fellow Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke) Li has opted with “Buddha Mountain” to work within the system, her sharp critiques remain very much present. This time, largely as a function of censor negotiation and compromise, she is less polemical and confrontational than in the past, embedding her barbs more deeply in her intensely rendered atmospherics and sensitively drawn characters. These characters are impressively embodied by fine performances, none more so than by Sylvia Chang, whose bravura turn progressively peels the layers of the prickly, embittered, depressed woman she portrays, revealing the vulnerability and complex humanity underneath.
“Buddha Mountain” screens July 3 and 5 at the Walter Reade Theater. For tickets, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.