A howl of agony echoes through a distant gorge and soon merges with the screams of the persecutors and the persecuted alike in “Mountain Cry,” a bluntly effective condemnation of intolerant groupthink that reveals just how quickly the inhabitants of a remote village will turn on their own. No less compelling for being so morally unambiguous, this adaptation of Ge Shuiping’s novel offsets its simplistic small-town portrait with a love story of remarkable credibility and emotional depth, persuasively acted by Lang Yueting and Wang Ziyi. Like a less abstract Chinese remake of Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” with the melodrama cranked up to full force, this sophomore effort from mainland writer-director Larry Yang (“Sorry, I Love You”) should parlay its forceful, broadly accessible storytelling into solid Asian arthouse prospects following its Busan closing-night premiere.
It’s 1984 in a town situated precariously among the rocky ravines of China’s Taihang Mountains, a region of wild, untamed beauty whose eerie calm is shattered one day by the sound of a man’s unearthly scream. La Hong (Yu Ailei) has accidentally stepped into a badger trap and had his foot blown off; within hours, he’s succumbed to his wounds, leaving behind his mute wife, Hong Xia (Lang), and their two small children. Unwilling to report the matter to the police and provoke a scandal, the village elders, led by Qi Liu (Xu Caigen), decide to settle matters themselves. Han Chong (Wang), the honest and good-natured young man who set the traps, is held responsible for La Hong’s death, and he’s tasked with taking care of the widow and her kids until they’ve been adequately compensated for their loss. The exact nature of that loss is quickly called into question, however, in clues and flashbacks suggesting that La Hong, something of a mysterious newcomer to the village, was a less-than-honorable man and maybe an even worse husband.
And Hong Xia’s silent arrangement with Han Chong turns out to be a highly satisfactory one as the two get to know each other. He speaks to her, and she writes him messages back; she cooks meals for him, while he provides for her family with the money he earns from flour making (one of many mundane activities we see here in rich, scene-setting detail). The daily routine of village life provides a comforting, normalizing backdrop as the two gradually form a bond of love (complete with adorable orange kitty-cat to keep them company), as Han Chong soon realizes that he’s no longer following an official decree but his own heart. But just when it seems that the two are headed for an unexpectedly happy ending, the circumstances of La Hong’s death return to haunt them — and the other villagers, who unite as one with an angry, mindless determination to rip the new couple apart.
Evocatively lensed in gorgeous autumnal shades by d.p. Patrick Murguia, and realized with great physical verisimilitude by production designer Jeffrey Kong, it’s a simple, gripping fable of small-town discontent that becomes a sweeping indictment of human vindictiveness, misunderstanding and ingrained fear of the Other. As implicitly suggested by the film’s time frame, these are qualities subtly exacerbated by the lingering paranoid aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution that ended just eight years earlier. That political subtext aside, Yang doesn’t exactly approach his material with the subtlest of hands: He’s the kind of director who’ll stage an opening death scene with an actual mob of torch-bearing villagers out in full force, and who isn’t afraid to splurge on slow-motion or Nicolas Errera’s surging score in the redemptive closing scenes.
Then again, subtlety isn’t necessarily called for when you’re foregrounding truths as elemental as the ones illustrated here, where most individuals act out of a toxic combination of spite, jealousy and self-interest — whether it’s the village socialite (Guo Jin) who resents losing Han Chong’s affections to that of the local mute, or the calculating elder-in-training (Chendong Zhao) who relishes every chance to give orders, seize power and turn a deaf ear to reason. Cutting a rather more complicated figure is Han Chong’s father (Cheng Taishen), who has always been hard on his son, partly in the knowledge that if he isn’t, the outside world will be more than happy to oblige. And so it is, as Yang steadily amplifies the stakes, pushing things toward the sort of blood-boiling emotional climax that leaves his characters literally and figuratively astride an abyss.
In the end, no one here is as fully realized as Han Chong and Hong Xia, and if they feel somewhat overly idealized as a consequence — two equally noble, self-sacrificing souls whose love transcends small minds and language barriers alike — they could scarcely be more sympathetically or credibly played. The illusion is even more remarkable if you’ve seen “Office,” Johnnie To’s giddily stylized musical about the economic crisis, in which the eager, energetic Wang and the alluring, mysterious Lang played romantically linked corporate interns. Here, operating in a context that could scarcely be more different in tone or milieu, these two relative newcomers invest their performances with a passion and sincerity that cannot help but compel belief. The scenario in which they find themselves may be little more than a soapy diagram, but the actors succeed in bringing it to heart-pounding, flesh-and-blood life.