In Zhang Yang’s quasi-documentary Up the Mountain, things recur. Plotlines weave in and out of each other: there’s the birth of a baby, who over the film’s length becomes a toddler; there’s the strained, tepid engagement of a young couple; there’s the arrival of a small, eager legion of elderly women, who’ve come to paint under the tutelage of a quietly commandeering artist (Shen Jianhua, playing himself), who bears permanently black, circular glasses.
Straddling the skittish line between reality and fiction, Up the Mountain seems at once effortlessly observational and painstakingly deliberate, with every scene framed, shot, and centred with an Ozu-esque hyper-attentiveness to symmetry, dimension, and perspective. With this precision, Zhang captures impeccably the idle pleasure of creation, or more accurately, of curation, of small pieces of the world — here, it’s Shuanglang, a remote mountain village over a thousand kilometres from Shanghai. Like Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (2017), Up the Mountain feels like images come alive — the camera’s lack of mobility affords attention to minute detail. It’s easy to describe this film as a succession of paintings: in the backdrop of many shots, clear in focus, there are mountains — trembling seams on the horizon; there are clouds — hazy licks of watered-down acrylic. Zhang’s attentiveness to picture applies equally to the sound design, which, dialled up bright and crisp, is immaculate: one can hear the measured julienning of ginger, the gentle scrape of a brush on parchment, the creak of floorboards. Sound and picture collegiate into vivid sensory experience. From a near-birds-eye-view, the piquant scent of a dazzling, bubbling, spicy fish broth wafts straight through the screen.
But the force of this immersion is imprisoned within Up the Mountain’s paperback aspect ratio, whose dimensions mirror the upright canvases that the women paint on, with painstaking concentration, in narrow rooms, on tables, outside. There they dab small colours on intricate, patterned pieces, that, in their scenic focus, feel at least visually microcosmic to the film itself — the vibrancy of their artworks running parallel to the film’s deep, ubiquitous fluorescents. The value gleaned from the connection between painting and film strays no further than similarities in the pleasure of creation — the gratification of capturing things is beautiful. While the women paint fictive, transcendent images, Zhang as a director often casts down a gaze as empirical as it is poetic, conjuring quiet, observational revelations. Culture and tradition of the Bai people can be found in clothing, in food and in rituals; in the night-time incineration of a giant structure that looks like a folded-up Christmas tree. There are slight, off-key dissonances between Shuanglang and the modern world too, and Zhang departs from the mountains a few times to the bustling town below, rendered brassly urban by its traffic and noise. Traditional sentiments are sounded in passing — Shen Jianhua observes: “in the villages, marrying at 25 is quite late”.
Though as Up the Mountain blends fiction and non-fiction, its efforts feel sometimes a bit artificial; a bit too exacting. Some scenes — such as the voiced trepidations of a young man thinking of leaving the village, or conversations about a death of a nearby acquaintance — feel fictional, standing out among the film’s largely observational lean. In the beginning, the film states, “The cast is assembled from the residents of Shuanglang”, and at the end, credits correspond the names of actor to player, sometimes, and sometimes not. And at one point in the documentary, a nameless husband and wife squabble in the middle of the night, the husband drunk and slurry and perfectly framed in the doorway, you wonder, is this real? And what is it adding to the film? As such, some fictional elements of Up the Mountain distract from its observational merits: everything is a bit too staged for the film to plausibly embrace documentary status, but a bit too fragmented to hold much emotional weight in its splintering narratives. Conversations often begin when scenes do — but I would have liked a bit more breathing space in the bookends. And so Up the Mountain’s excruciatingly exact camera placements, sharp-edged editing, and careful manipulation of colour and sound all work to create a piece of art that feels a tad too poised, and too self-aware, to feel truly real or immersive. As the film unfolds, Zhang transports us less to Shuanglang, but instead to a careful, artistic approximation of Shuanglang, which though startling in its beauty and in its sharp, tonal contemplation, still, as the credits roll, feels far away — less a portal than a painting, on a wall somewhere, for someone to simply pass by.
Up the Mountain will be playing on Sat 8 June and Mon 10 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.