Saturday, 17 September 2011

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Buddha Mountain - SIFF 2011


Opinion: B+

A clashing mix of arthouse and life revelation makes this film a yearning piece of cinema to attach ourselves onto, especially with good performance by Fan Bingbing and veteran Sylvia Chang. It is also this clashing mix that dilutes its sense of direction adopted, somewhat resembling those of the three 20-something protagonists who are taking life as they come and go. Be it bitter or sweet.


Three angst-filled youth flutter like moths around a flickering light bulb when a retired Beijing opera singer seeks to rent out rooms in her apartment. Taiwanese veteran Sylvia Chang plays the role of a grieving mother desperately seeking spiritual release in one of the most lauded roles of her career. A transcendental tale of finding kinship in a fractured world with one of the few female directors working from China at its helm.


The film is probably better seen as two distinctive halves. The first half introduces us to the troubled and lost protagonists, which happens to be the engaging narrative portion. The second is portrayed as an abstract arthouse nirvana that is typically the case of films portraying life.

The film's title is iconic of a scenic location in Sichuan, China, where the three youngsters seem to have an affection for. We get to follow them on dreamy ecstatic train rides (as though they're on drugs whenever they take the train) to the mountainous landscape where they seem to be behaviorally reserved and at ease.

The cause and source for this is not explained in the film.

Right from the beginning, the three hipsters sported reckless traits and bashed through life's everyday. Until they move in with their senior landlord/ex-opera singer played by the powerful Sylvia Chang. She's struck with grief from the lost of her son to a car accident (which I deeply felt from her act), but we soon realise that she isn't the only one with troubles.

Fan Bingbing (who won Best Actress at 2010's Tokyo International Film Festival for her performance in this film) and Chen Bo-ling's characters are also nonchalant facades attempting to mask family woes. It is here where we see that the age gap handles domestic trauma differently. In a way, having these two groups of people cross path with each other allowed them to benefit from what they lack in life.

Whether or not the relationship assimilation is derived from sympathy or pure amiable friendship, is another open question left to the audience.

There is also a dash of jovial carefree attitude sprinkled about in the form of "Fatso", the youngster who seems to be the least affected by worldly affairs aside from the departure of his favourite pop idol Michael Jackson. His role might not be taken seriously, but is a much welcomed element to help balance the film (or life rather).

The film begins to crumble a little from its second half of abstractness, where it doesn't seem to be sure of its course of direction and what it hopes to achieve. Not only does it feel elongated, it also lights up bulbs of question marks in our mind of its intention. Was it for us to feel the stretch of time-indulgence that the youngsters were going through, or merely a series of dreamy artwork to inspire and influence beyond literacy.

Buddha Mountain becomes a dedication to the Sichuan earthquake at certain points of the film, and later allows a religious theme to infuse and pivot one of the characters. There's some discussions of religious philosophies that try to bring some sense to the lost souls and hope they accept healing into their hearts.

The script co-written by Li Yu and Fang Li doesn't add much narrative revelation to this well-directed film by Li Yu, but it's definitely a film to watch and to be discussed. Cinematography wasn't outstanding (and what's with the constant racking of focus?) but the art direction by Liu Weixin probably took much of the visual limelight. Not to forget the Sound Supervisor's work in this film, by none other than Taiwan's renowned Tu Du-Chih.

Buddha Mountain is likely to be inspired by the poetic landscape as visually depicted in the film, and wants us to immerse ourselves in the delicate moments in life, be it bitter or sweet. Often brooding, this film is trying to send an abstract message about how definition is probably not the best definition of life.

Life is such, such is Life.


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