Plumbing the depths of the generation gap, helmer Li Yu (“Lost in Beijing”) reaches an Asian indie apex with her earthy, energetic drama “Buddha Mountain.” The tale of a trio of drifting, aimless mainland Chinese youth lodging with an uptight Peking opera buff, this assured film is graced with authentic performances and cinematic flair, yielding one of the most dramatically engaging and accessible Asian arthouse efforts in recent memory. Savvy distribs could capitalize on the film’s top prize at Tokyo last year, but fests are its natural home.
Initially, the story centers on three young people in an unnamed provincial city in Northern China. Nan Feng (Fan Bingbing) is a tough bar singer afraid of nothing and no one, and her biggest fans and best buddies are handsome motorbike courier Ding Bo (Taiwanese thesp Chen Po-lin) and his rotund sidekick, Fei Zao, aka Fatso (Fei Long). Forming a sexed-up “Rebel Without a Cause”-style triangle, the party-hearty threesome quells its wanderlust by escaping the claustrophobic city and hopping freight trains around the surrounding countryside.
Evicted from their soon-to-be-demolished apartment, the three rent a couple of rooms from retired Chinese opera singer Chang Yueqin (vet Taiwanese thesp Sylvia Chang). The apartment is cozy, but the landlady’s managerial style is anything but touchy-feely. Chang has more rules than a draughtsman, and the free-spirited tenants balk, but are too self-obsessed to notice that her controlling nature conceals real emotional pain. Script incrementally reveals the source of the older woman’s grief, as her maudlin pastimes include sitting in a crash-damaged car in her garage, smoking cigarettes and gazing through a shattered windshield.
Meanwhile, cohabitation becomes a series of mean-spirited practical jokes. Fei substitutes Chinese opera videos with porn; Chang returns fire with cruel palm readings. The escalating contest creates an opportunity for Ding Bo to investigate their landlady’s inner sanctum, where he discovers a hidden stash of money, setting the stage for an emotional explosion that pushes the film’s final quarter into a transcendent space, though the finale will strike some as satisfying and inevitable, others as dull and predictable, according to taste.
Buttressed by Zeng Jian’s restless, often urgent lensing, Li directs with unassuming confidence. Zeng and co-editor Karl Reidl’s use of frequent jump cuts within scenes adds to the tetchy atmosphere, and provides an effective counterpoint to the tranquil emotional release the characters find in China’s exquisite countryside.
The jewel in the film’s crown is Chang’s perf as the tortured, abusive landlady. Younger thesps also impress, particularly Fan, who makes Nan Feng both childlike and fearsome. Chen’s Ding Bo is less detailed, but scenes with the character’s father (producer/co-writer Fang Li) give the thesp opportunity to explore greater emotional depths. Fei Long also gets good mileage out of the potentially thankless role of roly-poly Fei Zao.
From Wong Kar Wai’s “Days of Being Wild”to Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures” and beyond, more than 20 years of aimless Asian youth running amok has lapsed into cinematic cliche. But “Buddha Mountain” finds a narrative drive that still keeps faith with the youthful alienation it’s exploring.
Score draws on multiple sources, from Chinese nightclub fare to classy piano and violin duets, and is often prominent but never intrusive, always adding vitality to the impressive visuals.