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Buddha Mountain
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by Jay Seaver

"Independently impressive."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: It doesn't always work out this way, but ending the trip to New York City for the Asian Film Festival with "Buddha Mountain" turned out to be a nice way to decompress. After a non-stop barrage of movies where even the relatively sedate family picture featured a time-traveling samurai, this picture from China about a group of struggling Chinese friends would have been a fine palate cleanser even if it wasn't genuinely good on its own.

Three young people in Chengdu need a new place to live. Nan Feng (Fan Bingbing) is an aspiring singer who gets in financial trouble when a man who claims he was injured at one of her shows starts shaking the bar where she plays down; Ding Bo (Berlin Chen) dropped out of college and uses his motorcycle to work as an unlicensed courier; Fei "Fatso" Zao (Wang Helong) does odd jobs and gets teased for being overweight. Tossed out of their current apartment, they wind up renting a room from Master Chang Yun-qin (Sylvia Chang), a one-time Peking Opera singer with her own issues whose fastidiousness inevitably leads to clashes with her boarders.

Buddha Mountain is the sort of movie western audiences don't see from China very often - it's contemporary, small in scale, and tells a tale of ordinary people; it's also written and directed by a woman. That last bit is apparently quite rare in China, and with at least one of writer/director Li Yu's previous films (Lost in Beijing) banned, it wouldn't be surprising if this film was a truly independent production. It certainly feels like one, with its ground-level photography of what feel like found locations and appealing but not glamorous cast of characters. It's also refreshingly free of the nationalism that has been omnipresent in recent Chinese cinema - there are no reminders of the glorious history, propagandic praise for the government, or pointed displays of prosperity.

Perhaps nobody benefits more from this low-key approach than Fan Bingbing. Despite a filmography filled with glossy period pieces and slick action flicks, she turns out to be at her best here, where - instead of being made-up, coiffed, and costumed to bland perfection - she is able to let her hair down and play Nan Feng as a volatile young lady whose acting out is clearly borne of frustration and anger; she's fierce enough to storm into the gang that teasing Fatso and leave them a quivering mass but also be completely believable when confronted by a situation she can't control. It's a fantastic performance that one might not think she had in her from years of roles that frequently amounted to just looking pretty.

Sylvia Chang also gets a meaty role to chew on as the group's new landlady. She brings an angry dignity to Master Chang, an often disdainful sense of superiority to the others that the actress plays like a well-tuned instrument, piling fury at the youngsters' lack of respect on top of the simple anger at what they've done, augmenting it with scenes of quiet devastation and a harsh inability to forgive that recalls a similar emotion in Still Walking, even if the expression is completely different. What's more impressive is how she retains much of the weight of her character's burden even as she starts to connect and form a family with the rest.

The boys' roles aren't quite so strong as Fan's and Chang's, but they do a lot of things right - the moment where Fatso's actual name is first spoken, late in the film, is just right, for instance. One thing that's on them more than it is on the ladies is how they find the overlapping space between these protagonists being confused and adrift and also being the sort of selfish jerks that Ms. Chang must see them as. All of the characters have a fair bit of growing to do, and Li Yu gives them the right sorts of small encounters and adventures to manage it. She elicits a low-key but impressive spirituality when the characters visit an earthquake-ravaged Buddhist temple, and beautifully illustrates their lack of direction by having them spend some time riding the rails.

There are, perhaps, a few issues with how she ties things together in the end - a character separating from the group makes more sense than the return, and the ambiguous ending may not quite walk the line between realism and symbolism. Mostly, though, it's an impressively crafted story whose simple and honest emotion shows why independent filmmakers are so important, no matter where they may be.

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originally posted: 07/14/11 12:21:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yu Li

Written by
  Yu Li
  Li Fang

Cast
  Bingbing Fan
  Sylvia Chang
  Berlin Chen
  Helong Wang



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