China, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 107 mins.
Director: Yang Zi 杨子 [Larry Yang].
A rural drama that’s several cuts above the norm, with new actress Lang Yueting terrific in her first lead role.
Anshanping village, Taihang mountains, Shanxi province, the 1980s. A young mute woman, Hongxia (Lang Yueting), lives with her two children and brutish husband La Hong (Yu Ailei) in a mountainside home. The locals have nicknamed La Hong “the beggar” as he arrived with his family with nothing about six months ago, and was allowed to live in the abandoned house next to young flour-maker Han Chong (Wang Ziyi). After La Hong goes into the woods looking for some berries for his elder daughter Da (Li Siying), an explosion is heard. First on the scene is Han Chong, who finds La Hong with half a leg blown off. Han Chong is blamed by the village elders for the accident, as he had used a detonator – provided by the widow Qinhua (Guo Jin), who fancies him – in a badger trap that La Hong had stepped on. Hongxia does not seem too saddened by her husband’s death, and refuses a compensation payment of RMB20,000 from Han Chong that is decided by the village committee, led by elder Qiu Liu (Xu Caigen) and Wang Panghai (Zhao Chendong). Eager to see the right thing done prior to the arrival of a new village head, the committee then decides Han Chong should be made responsible for Hongxia’s daily requirements, including three meals a day, until such time as she decides on a compensation amount. Gradually, Hongxia and Han Chong take a liking to each other, though Hongxia is still haunted by traumas from her past. Han Chong’s father, Han Laowu (Cheng Taishen), does a deal with one family who offers a dowry of RMB20,000 if Han Chong marries their retarded daughter. When Han Chong refuses, Hongxia lets it be known that she wants him instead. But then Qinhua, jealous of Han Chong’s liking for Hongxia, starts to cause trouble.
Starting like a routine peasant-poverty drama in a picturesque setting, Mountain Cry 喊•山 soon develops into something more original – a slow-burning but genuinely moving love story flecked with black comedy. Mainland cinema isn’t short of films in either of those two genres but rarely combines the two, especially in as “pure” and accessible a form as here. Mountain Cry is also notable for two career breakthroughs – into the artier scene (and festival world) by writer-director Yang Zi 杨子 [Larry Yang] after a series of routine commercial outings, and into a leading role by concert pianist-turned-actress Lang Yueting 郎月婷.
The building blocks of the script – from a 2004 novella by Shanxi authoress Ge Shuiping 葛水平 – aren’t especially new, as the characters (abused young wife, village vamp, scheming villagers, good-hearted hero, dysfunctional father) are standard for most rural dramas and the plot (hero held responsible for accidental death of wife’s horrid husband) is designed just to bring the two leads together. But with the set-up out of the way after 20 minutes, the film starts to weave a delicate emotional web, flecked with a blackly humorous look at rural life and attitudes. As she surprises the villagers at a meeting by being able to write with a brush pen, it’s clear there’s more to the mute Hongxia (Lang) than meets the eye, though at no point does she break character as the abused young widow. The way she slowly opens up to her “hero” Han Chong, as a kind of love-cum-complicity grows between them, is delicately sketched, with her not simplified into a scheming siren nor him into easy male prey.
Though the script is a little unsteady in its opening, and Hongxia’s history (seen in brief flashbacks) could also be clearer, in general the screenplay is very assured, with its own momentum. The way in which subsidiary characters are developed is also pleasingly subtle: Han Chong’s father, who has a distant relationship with his son and, it turns out, his own backstory, or the village vamp, Qinhua, who becomes jealous of Hongxia.
But where the film benefits enormously is in being directed by someone who’s been through the commercial mill rather than just graduated from film school. Yang, 35, has lived in both New York and the UK, finally returning to China in 2004, graduating from Beijing Film School in 2006, and later forging a working relationship with Beijing Hairun Pictures 北京海润影业 (which has extended to Mountain Cry). His previous features include the Hong Kong-set battle-of-the-sexes comedy Mr. Zhai 宅男总勋员 女神归来 (aka Chase Our Love, 2011) with Zhong Zhentao 钟镇涛 [Kenny Bee], comedy-action-romance Sky Love 恋爱三万英尺 (2012) and Vancouver/Beijing-set potboiler Sorry I Love You 对不起我爱你 (2014), all of which are average at best. Mountain Cry is in an entirely different league and, unlike so much festival fare, shows no interest in taking its audience for granted and has a lighter, brighter approach to the material (and original novella) than your standard miserabilist peasant movie.
Yang’s key crew is also cosmopolitan – Mexican d.p. Patrick Murguia (Abel, 2010), French composer Nicolas Errèra, Malaysia-born art director Jiang Hanlin 江汉林 [Jeffrey Kong] – that adds to the film’s freshness without detracting from its authenticity. Murguia’s widescreen images of the Pingshun, Shanxi province, location start strikingly but later settle into an easy naturalism that doesn’t detract from the characters, while the score by Errèra, who worked on the way bigger Shaolin 新少林寺 (2011) and The White Storm 扫毒 (2013), is both moving and atmospheric in a restrained way.
Apart from Yang’s upbeat approach, the jewel in the film’s crown is the lead performance by Lang, 31, a concert pianist who caught the acting bug five years ago and has already had two supporting roles in films by Hong Kong’s Du Qifeng 杜琪峰 [Johnnie To] – as the murdered high-school friend in Blind Detective 盲探 (2013) and the chairman’s daughter in Office 华丽上班族 (2015). Neither of those performances was much preparation for her showing here, a role in which she doesn’t have one spoken word: though arguably rather too beautiful for the part, she brings an inner assurance that is just right, as well as a mystery to whether she is really mute or just pretending.
She bonds well on screen with the more experienced Wang Ziyi 王紫逸, 34, who was also in Blind Detective and Office, and is similarly restrained but not dispassionate. Just as Lang has hints of a young Shu Qi 舒淇, so Wang here has shades of Qin Hao 秦昊 in his performance. It’s a strong pairing that at the end becomes genuinely moving. Strong support from Cheng Taishen 成泰燊 as the father, Guo Jin 郭金 as the jealous village widow, and Zhao Chendong 赵晨东 as a dim villager rounds out a strong cast.
As the film barrelled round the festival circuit after premiering at Busan in late 2015, it was never mentioned that a very respectable version of Gu’s novel had been made just previously: Out in the Silence 喊山 (aka Shouting from Mountain, 2013), directed by Li Yanting 李彦廷 and with Song Ziqiao 宋梓侨 as Hongxia and Hou Yansong 侯岩松 as Han Chong. Perhaps to distinguish it from that version, Yang’s film has a middle dot between the two characters of the Chinese title (which literally means “Cry, Mountain”).
Presented by Beijing Hairun Pictures (CN), Village Roadshow Pictures Asia (CN). Produced by Beijing Hairun Pictures (CN).
Script: Yang Zi. Novel: Ge Shuiping. Photography: Patrick Murguia. Editing: Yang Zi, Zhang Chao. Music: Nicolas Errèra. Art direction: Jiang Hanlin [Jeffrey Kong]. Costumes: Liu Jian. Sound: Ma Jie, Huang Zheng, Steve Miller. Visual effects: Shi Wen (More Visual Production). Literary advice: Ge Shuiping.
Cast: Lang Yueting (Hongxia), Wang Ziyi (Han Chong), Cheng Taishen (Han Laowu/Han Chong’s father), Guo Jin (Qinhua, widow), Xu Caigen (Qi Liu, village elder), Yu Ailei (La Hong, Hongxia’s husband), Zhao Chendong (Wang Panghai/Fatboy), Li Siying (Da, Hongxia’s daughter).
Premiere: Busan Film Festival (Closing Film), 10 Oct 2015.
Release: China, 26 Aug 2016.