“The family should be peaceful and united” according to an exasperated aunt but then again “family is a pain”. Gu Xiaogang’s stunning debut feature Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, chūn jiāngshuǐ nuǎn) takes it name from a famous classical painting and unfurls a tale of familial strife born of intergenerational tension which is also a tension in the earth between new and old as this “traditional Chinese landscape” as someone describes it pointing at another painting is gradually eroded by a destructive modernity.
This ambivalence is clear in the opening scene which takes place in the family restaurant where they are currently celebrating the 70th birthday of the family’s matriarch. What first seems atmospheric, even romantic as someone describes it, in the candlelit space is revealed to be simply a power cut and a symptom of the imperfect modernity visiting itself on the town. In any case, grandma later collapses in the process of handing a red envelope to her grandson and is taken to hospital where it is revealed that she has suffered a stroke which has accelerated the course of her dementia. The question then becomes who will accept the responsibility of caring for her with each of her four sons secretly hoping that someone else will volunteer.
Grandma is in many ways the film’s moral authority, at one point quite literally adrift in the modern society. She no longer recognises her daughter-in-law Fengjuan (Wang Fengjuan) and avoids taking her medication believing that she’s being poisoned but pines for her youngest son whom she says spends the most time with her and is the most obedient but in fact appears the least interested of all the brothers. When he finally visits her to show off the fiancée everyone told him he had to get to put her mind at ease before it’s too late all she can do is stare at the moon. On the other hand, she is the one firmly on the side of the young, telling her granddaughter Guxi (Peng Luqi) to marry a man she chooses for herself rather than be swayed by the wishes of her parents and wind up miserable as she herself seems to have been.
Guxi is in a relationship with local teacher Jiang (Zhuang Yi) who might otherwise be thought a catch in that he has a good job and stable income as well as access to a preferential mortgage programme for those in his profession, but Fengjuan envisions more insisting Guxi marry the son of an influential businessman in part to ease her own financial worries. As Guxi suggests, her mother’s idea of happiness is different from her own. Having suffered privation in their youth the older generation prioritise material comfort but in their old age may become lonely or resentful in the emptiness of their familial relationships. Yet to defy her parents’ wishes is emotionally difficult, her eventual decision to choose Jiang over them a minor revolution.
Meanwhile the lives of each of the brothers is overshadowed by debt both financial and moral in the continual horse trading of family life. Third brother Youjin (Sun Zhangjian) is a petty gambler in trouble with loansharks who eventually trash oldest brother Youfu’s (Qian Youfa) restaurant trying to get him to pay up, while second brother Youhong (Sun Zhangwei) and his wife are owed money from various parties but eventually come into some by making themselves homeless agreeing to sell their home to developers intending to cash buy a fancy apartment for their factory worker son and the bride which has been picked out for him. “We lived here for 30 years. It was demolished in three days” Youhong’s wife laments as the city is demolished and rebuilt all around them in preparation for the 2022 Asian Games. The promised new transport connections ironically emphasise how much they will add to the town by making it quicker and easier to go somewhere else but there is a genuine sense of poignancy in Gu’s slow panning motion through a derelict apartment across to the shiny new one about to be completed behind it.
In one of the soon-to-be dismantled buildings, the youngest brother recovers a suitcase with a love letter inside it dated April 1989, a relic from another China though telling the same old story of young love thwarted by parental authority. Closest to her grandmother and third uncle Youjin who eventually reclaims her from the old person’s home where the other brothers had decided to send her while caring for his 19-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome, Guxi brands her family selfish and laments that they can’t get past all of these arcane rules and petty power games to love and support each other as a family should ironically taking grandma’s advice in refusing to perpetuate the cycle of resentment by marrying a man she doesn’t love just to please them. Gu films this unfolding tale with a series of breathtaking tracking shots along the river as if running one’s eyes over a scroll painting while giving in to the oneiric quality of the rolling mists that hang over this changing landscape. Apparently the first volume of a trilogy of films set along the Fuchun river, Gu’s minimalist epic is a poignant evocation of a hometown memory both transient and eternal.
Original trailer (English subtitles)