Reinforcing his position as one of the world’s superior nonfiction filmmakers, Yu Guangyi completes a landmark docu trilogy with the exquisitely observed and touching “Bachelor Mountain.” Rounding out what came before with the rough-and-ready “Timber Gang” and the intense character study “Survival Song,” Yu’s look at the life and impossible love of a hardscrabble logger/laborer is his most emotionally felt work and, if fests are paying attention, should get Yu some worldwide love.
Yu remains in the same area where he’s previously filmed, the Changbai mountains in China’s far-northern Heilongjiang province, to explore and record the life of another man who’s become the victim of the region’s economic decline. Once a thriving logging region, the area has seen a curtailing of forest clear-cutting due to environmental regulations, with eco-tourism replacing forestry as the prime local industry. “Timber Gang” captured the end of the old logging ways and culture, while “Survival Song” profiled an ex-logger apparently at the end of his rope.
San Liangzi, the central figure of “Bachelor Mountain,” is nowhere near as desperate, but the good old days seem like a faint memory now that he’s barely scraping by, living in a freezing hovel and doing odd jobs wherever he can find them. Yu’s eye and ear for human comedy are as acute as ever as he captures an amusing and telling exchange among a small group of women (“Don’t we look like a bunch of hobos?” one of them says with amused embarrassment), who note how few of them still live in the area, with bachelors like San praised for being “a good, honest worker.”
And that he is. Showing up on time and even early, he regularly works his tail off for whoever’s hired him, and labors particularly hard at the hotel lodge managed by Wei Meizi, for whom San has secretly held a candle for a decade. Meanwhile, Wei — working with her elderly parents, who own the lodge and plan to expand to tap into the eco-tourist business — displays flashes of irritation that San is trying a bit too hard. She’s the area’s last bachelorette, which could have been a funny title for the pic if Yu had kept “Timber Gang’s” original title, “The Last Lumberjacks” (wisely, he didn’t).
Alone in his bed, the once-divorced Liangzi confides to Yu that he hasn’t slept with another woman in the decade he’s pined for Wei, who’s 16 years his junior, and he doesn’t even attend the nearby brothels. Asked if he regrets anything, he replies, “What’s to regret?”
But as his films consistently do, Yu pierces this proud male facade to uncover a terribly lonely man who’s grown increasingly angry with himself and his absurd situation — underlined when his buddies, trying to be helpful, point out the obvious fact that Wei is a lesbian and isn’t about to marry any guy, let alone him. The result is a scene of remarkably frank discussion among men, as Yu finds in his shell of denial a means of survival and a strategy for maintaining his pride, even in defiance of logic and emotional health. Seldom has the notion of burying oneself in work to distract from inner, personal turmoil been so acutely observed and humanely delivered.
This is where “Bachelor Mountain” leaps beyond even the outstanding recent docs examining work and labor that have blossomed on the world cinema scene, such as Yu’s own films, Nicolas Geyrhalter’s “Our Daily Bread” and “Elsewhere,” and Uruphong Raksasad’s “Agrarian Utopia.” Yu not only observes the work of San and other men, but also foregrounds the motor that drives their emotional neediness, an unexpected and thoroughly affecting storytelling development.
As in the two previous parts of the trilogy, vid lensing (by Yu and his close collaborator Yu Qiushi, who also works as co-editor) is raw and unvarnished, ideally suited to the hard-as-nails rural setting. With each successive film, the editing grows sharper and more judicious, with well-chosen fades and sequence transitions.