Up the Mountain posterThe story of modern China has often been one of migration as the young find themselves pulled towards the cities, sending their children back to the countryside to be raised by relatives while they earn what they can away from home. As the economic situation improves, however, there may be motion the other way. Successful artist Shen Jianhua moved from the bustling metropolis of Shanghai to a remote mountain village where he practices his art and opens his home to all who have an interest in learning from him.

Shen’s mountain home is an interesting exemplification of a blend of old and new. Though he seems to prefer the simple life, the renovated property is decorated in a modern, though fairly minimalist, style and the family do not appear to want for anything. Their living is not austere and Shen does not object to the idea of modernity, as the toys bought for his baby son seem to testify while his apprentice chats on an iPhone and his teenage daughter listens to music while she runs.

Nevertheless, life in the mountains is lived slowly and there are things which must be done which is why we see apprentice Dinglong continually chopping firewood while the gaggle of old ladies who make up the majority of Shen’s pupils come back and forth with vegetables preparing tasty food to be shared communally by the small family that has grown up around Shen’s art practice. It does not appear that the ladies pay anything for Shen’s instruction or that he draws much of an income for it, but all seem to benefit from a shared sense of creative community. One old lady describes her life before art as “stagnant, like old water”, but now she feels reenergised and happily gives away her finished paintings to her bemused children as something to remember her by when she’s not around.

Not everyone is as happy for the old women as they seem to be for each other, however, as we notice in the persistent discord between one older bickering couple. Dinglong too remains conflicted. Still young, his parents are beginning to pressure him to give up painting and the mountains to settle down. Dinglong, like many young men, doesn’t really want to and so is surprised and dismayed when Shen’s advice is more conservative than he might have expected, encouraging him to obey his parents’ wishes and reminding him that good art is founded on a wealth of life experience. Truth be told, Dinglong has a girlfriend already and is perhaps edging towards marriage but the snag is that her parents are from a nearby city. They’d rather their daughter marry nearby and would worry about her living in a remote village they perhaps assume is much more rustic than it really is. The other problem is that artists don’t earn much and Dinglong admits he only paints one picture a year with no guarantee it will sell. As a son-in-law, he’s not a particularly good catch.

Dinglong’s dilemma is perhaps unusual, most of the other youngsters are desperate to leave the country for a better life in the cities no matter how illusionary it might turn out to be. Then again, his resistance is perhaps more understandable as he complains to Shen that he is being given almost no choice in his future as everything is being sorted out by his fiancée and the parents with him the only one in favour of his staying in the mountains. His future wife has a point, however, when she objects to raising children in the village without access to a good school. Shen and his wife are educated people and they’ve been able to teach their teenage daughter at home but Dinglong is a rural boy and they won’t have the resources to give their children the best start in life unless they travel to a place those resources might be found.

Reluctantly, Dinglong is forced away from the simple, traditional life which seems to suit him best while his wife remains unsympathetic to his attachment to the village and its guardian god. Meanwhile, Shen’s life carries on much as before even after the birth of his baby son who put in an appearance a month early to be born in the middle of New Year. Zhang captures the ancient rhythms of the traditional village through its rowdy, colourful festivals filled with joy and excitement but also sees the ways in which it is changing. One older lady enlists Shen’s help to build a bathroom on her property because her daughter was too embarrassed to bring a prospective husband home to a house without one (and a daughter getting married is after all the most important thing), creating a beautiful space dedicated to modern ideas of relaxation and serenity rather than the efficient austerity usually associated with rural life. The young might not be able to stay, but given time they may return and the mountain will be waiting for them with patient warmth.


Up the Mountain (火山, Hshān) screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 6, 2pm, at Heritage Museum of Asian Art, 218 West 26th Street.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

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