Up the Mountain offers a glimpse into a version of China that is hardly ever seen these days. Most films about China tend to focus on cheap labour, human rights abuses, and its growing economic power as the world’s largest manufacturer. These are important topics, but their prevalence has made it difficult to picture China through any other lens. Zhang Yang’s film bypasses these popular angles, and in doing so reminds us that every country has different stories to tell.
Cultivating the heart of a community
Up the Mountain is a portrait of the slow-paced life of a village in the Yunnan Province, a setting in which culture is ubiquitous, and the rhythm of life follows the rhythm of nature. Using multiple cameras and precisely framed shots, this portrait is idyllic without idealizing. It sets aside judgements and politics, in order to tell a candid story of community and warmth;one that invokes both inspiration and a real sense of possibility.
Shen Jianhua is the artist at the centre of the film, a figure as fatherly and wise as he is mysterious. He left Shanghai behind to live on top of the mountain. He teaches art to the villagers, and together with his pregnant wife and teenage daughter, they build a home that becomes the heart of the local community: a place where people come and go, where meals are prepared and new artists are formed.
Each fragment of this life is summed up in a painting or drawing, which builds a feeling of raw connection between art, reality and storytelling. Yang’s camera has an impeccable sense of timing in capturing these moments. Each scene is shot from mutiple angles, similar in atmosphere to that of a fiction film, whilst at the same time creating a real sense of intimacy.
Most of the artworks on display during the film are painted by a group of female folk artists who live further down the mountain, but who now spend their days in the communal orbit of Jianhua’s home. They dress traditionally, and are always seen together, almost like a collective character that talks, sings, and captures daily village life on the painted canvas.
These women are the central figures of the film, together with Dinglong; a young apprentice at a turning point in his life. He loves to paint and spend time at the house, but his father threatens to disrupt this way of life by insisting that he marry. At least for a while, Dinglong is not sure if that is what he wants.
The push and pull of change
Together, this young man and the older women represent archetypes of villagers at opposite ends of adulthood. The women are the guardians of tradition, representing the beauty of a life lived, but also serve to reflect the conventions and cultural symbols of a China slowly being left behind. The young apprentice is from a different generation. His peers move to the city when they get the chance, opening up possibilities to explore beyond village life. Despite Dinglong’s love of art, and appreciation for the setting in which this was able to thrive, he later succumbs to the same dynamic forces that attract so many young people to the fantasy of urban life. The young apprentice is thus emblematic of youth in a changing Chinese society; the generation that leaves because it simply cannot stay, and can’t resist the feeling that life happens somewhere else. Their youth drives them to push the boundaries of the communities that made them, while the city offers them the illusion of so much more.
Yet while the city landscape may hold its allure, living the full vibrancy of the old ways is what should be cherished at this point in time. Respite is an undervalued luxury, and Up the Mountain captures the spirit of this often overlooked world of subtle pleasures and emotions. And strangely enough, the world Yang portrays is as specific as it is universal. At it’s heart, a version of this village exists in most places around the world. It is a universal paradise lost in the twist of change, subject to shifting societal values and priorities; the shedding of the old to make way for the new. It is hard to resist this pull, but one cannot live a fast-paced urban life whilst simulataneously enjoying the respite of the village. As such, the village remains for the old and the eccentric; while for the young, success manifests as chasing urban dreams, perhaps at times in conflict with the inner longings of the heart.