Honest-to-goodness indie films have often been a great way to get a realistic feel of what a country, a culture or a people are about. The thriving cinematic culture of South Korea, with its sleek production values and great storylines have familiarized the country for so many cine-goers. The country could have easily been lost as North Korea's more liberal neighbor, but its cinema, as part of its culture currency has helped a great deal in creating a distinct perception about the tiny Asia Pacific nation.
With so much talk about India and China, the western world is more curious than ever before to know the realities of these countries. British Director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire took audiences' understanding a long way, with regards to the problems that many Indians still face; that of poverty, violence and unfulfilled aspirations. However, Chinese movies that most outsiders have been exposed to have been about martial arts and special effects. Thankfully, a growing wave of new-age, indie cinema could help us understand the country a little better.
Buddha Mountain by controversial (in China) filmmaker Li Yu is one such project that gives us a rare glimpse into middle-class Chinese lives and aspirations. The movie is about three, twenty-something rebellious friends, a good-looking male-female pair and their plump side-kick. These three, unlike many of their peers, do not want to take exams or get into universities. Forced to evict an apartment that was devastated by the Sichuan earthquake, the three of them rent a house, owned by a dictatorial, retired Opera singer.
One of the key points that emerge from the movie is the role of friendships in the lives of Chinese youngsters, almost all of whom have grown up in single-child families. Over 20 years ago, the Chinese government introduced the single-child policy to the country. Many of these children must have been lonely growing up and the extraordinarily close friendship between the three protagonists in the move hints at the importance of peer groups among Chinese youngsters. The quiet self-assurance of the three lead characters also depicts a sense of confidence and, to a certain extent, self-centeredness.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, director Li Yu, had said, "China has created a generation of very self-centered children, many of whom tend to be irresponsible." That the three protagonists chose not to study further and discover themselves instead, is also rare in a country, where among the middle class, parental pressure to complete college degrees and get good jobs is pervasive. Li Yu's description of 'irresponsible youth' and her depiction of them in this film points to the fact that more and more Chinese youngsters are going off the beaten path.
36-year-old Li Yu has largely been an underground filmmaker, as two of her previous films were practically banned from mainland China. One of them for the depiction of rape and another that portrayed economic migrants in the country. The director's professional past itself is a testimony to the censorious and controlling nature of the Chinese government.
Although, generation gap and the complexities that arise out of it, is universal, it is interesting to follow this theme in the movie. The three urbanites, after moving into the Opera singer's home, a lady has been struck by tragedy, having lost a young son. The kids show little regard for her privacy and the landlady, who later becomes sort of a surrogate parent, shows them the value of staying within boundaries. As new-age Chinese, the young tenants also are at odds with her tendency to wallow in the past.
Interestingly, the film also takes off after the Great Sichaun Earthquake. Over 60,000 people were confirmed dead in the actual earthquake and the film has real footage of the quake. Buddha Mountain also gives you a sense of the resilience of Chinese people. Not only are they adept at building skyscrapers in Shanghai but they also throw themselves into rebuilding their lives after a tragedy, as is shown by the three young Chinese who pack their bags and set off in search of better lives and better living arrangements.
As the plot of the movie progresses, two of the lead characters, the male and the female, fall in love. The fact that these youngsters can live together, under one roof, also hints at increased interaction between men and women in what has traditionally been a socially conservative country. But don't expect a steamy scene, for this is frowned upon in China by the authorities. Li Yu who previously made a film on a lesbian relationship and had to face the wrath of the government complied with the authorities this time around.
If you're up for a little drama and high-jinks from the somewhat immature Chinese youth, the drama, the cinematic layers and the artistic imagery of Buddha Mountain will be appealing. What's more you also get a sense of China, as it is today.