A character study masquerades as social commentary without succeeding as either in Han Jie's "Mr. Tree."
A character study masquerades as social commentary without succeeding as either in Han Jie’s “Mr. Tree.” Riding heavily on the charm of thesp Wang Baoqiang, this tale of a man who goes from town drunk to village idiot via a stint as seer is content to cut narrative corners rather than do the hard work of storytelling. Due to Jia Zhangke’s producing imprimatur, pic will automatically make the must-see list for upcoming fests, but will be greeted elsewhere with folded arms. The film scored the grand prize and the director award at Shanghai.
In a small mining town in Jilin, a northwestern Chinese province bordering North Korea, devil-may-care Shu (Wang) has an established rep as a drunken layabout and a danger to himself and others. When Shu temporarily blinds himself while welding in a garage, the ennui that follows builds on his unresolved despair over the death of his older brother, hanged from a tree by their now-deceased father.
Once his sight is restored, Shu takes a joyride with friends to the nearby town of Jitai, where he meets attractive, mute massage-parlor girl Xiaomei (Tan Zhuo). An awkward courtship ensues, and Shu’s attempts to transform himself into marriage material only sow the seeds for greater disaster, including his wedding day.
China’s increasing urbanization is on Han’s thematic agenda from the opening scene, in which a roaming van loaded with loudspeakers spligblatts consumer goods bribes for the small town populace to uproot to modern property developments. While a sense of disapproval rumbles under the yarn’s surface, Han’s pointed observations tend to feel like heavy appendages by the time they’re made explicit.
The script’s elliptical tendencies place the character’s sudden shifts in personality at the mercy of the helmer’s allegorical whims. Frequent arty cutaways to Shu (whose name means “tree” in Mandarin) cowering in a tree are deliberately jarring but add nothing to the narrative; a sudden song-and-dance number is likewise clumsy. Han relies heavily on Wang’s easy charisma, but without a strong narrative throughline, the thesp’s substantial charm is insufficient to carry the film.
Lenser Lai Yiu-fai deploys an almost docu style that gels well with Wang’s perf, but the multiple attempts at meaningful moments, a dark finale that bathes the screen red is the only artistic moment that rings true poetically. Tech credits are OK.