The English title of Gu Xiaogang’s debut film is “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” which is also the name of one the great treasures of Chinese art: a 14th-century landscape painting by Yuan Dynasty master Huang Gongwang. Especially from a first-timer, reaching for an association this lofty for what is ostensibly an intimate family drama could seem like hubris, but the gentleness and genuineness of Gu’s intentions surely offset that charge a little. And the film’s restful charms, at the very least, hugely improve the eponymous masterpiece’s cinematic legacy, given that it was last ignominiously used as the MacGuffin in 2013’s infamously awful spy caper “Switch.”
The title is not simply borrowed interest: The film emulates the painting in a deeply respectful way, in setting, but also in its lengthy, episodic sweep (Huang’s artwork is on a handscroll of nearly seven meters long, designed to be admired one small section at a time) and its deceptive, loose-yet-controlled aesthetic, which evokes the airy yet precise strokes of Huang’s inkbrush. Even the project’s major flaw may be part of this tribute: The human drama gets a little lost, seen from such a painterly remove.
In narrative terms, Gu’s touchpoint is clearly Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, though at this early stage of his career, he does not yet possess Yang’s genius for finding electrifyingly humane moments of connection and insight amid the hubbub of seemingly spontaneous real life. But the influence is still clear practically from the first scene as Yu Ninghui’s mild, well-mannered camera closes in slowly on a bustling family gathering — a birthday party — that could come straight from Yang’s “Yi Yi.” The film also closes with a gathering, this time a funeral, and in between, a year’s worth of familial changes — courtships, feuds, reversals of fortune — play out against the backdrop of the changing seasons. Or maybe that should be the other way around, since the weather, the landscapes and the exteriors play such central roles.
The birthday is that of the aging Yu family matriarch (Du Hongjun), and at it congregate her four sons and their children. Her eldest, Youfu (Qian Youfa), and his rather grasping wife Fengjuan (Wang Fengjuan) own and run a restaurant. They, along with their schoolteacher daughter Guxi (Peng Luqi), seem to form the most stable and successful offshoot of the Yu family tree, especially compared to Youfu’s next-eldest brothers, struggling fisherman Youhong (Sun Zhangwei) and caddish swindler Youjin (Sun Zhangjian). But trees change with the seasons, and so do our impressions of these characters.
The main arcs, inasmuch as such an ebb-and-flow film has them, concern Guxi coming into conflict with her parents over the man she wants to marry, her good-natured teacher colleague Jiang Yi (Zhuang Yi), who is the son of a river ferry captain, and scion of a family too lowly for her mother to approve. Meanwhile, her parents’ fortunes decline as the restaurant racks up debts, while fisherman Youhong makes a sudden killing on a real estate deal. Even seeming wastrel Youjin is rescued from his dire circumstances (which involve a local criminal gang that puts the whole family at risk) by a lucky streak, while also being rehabilitated in our eyes by the touching portrayal of his relationship with his mentally handicapped son (Sun Zikang).
Underneath the pleasant twanging of Dou Wei’s score, which cleverly melds modern rock and traditional Chinese elements, the film unfolds engagingly enough, but its languorousness can feel more like aimlessness at times. Gu is obviously entranced by the rhythms of nature, the cyclical reliability of spring following winter following fall, the flow of a broad, lazy river, but has not yet quite settled on a focal point that allows us to appreciate both this wide-angle placidity and the punchier moments of interpersonal strife.
And so Yu’s cinematography flourishes in its slow pans and sedate, wide tracking shots. There are several bravura sequences, including one literally breathtaking long take in which Guxi walks the length of a forested river bank while Jiang Yi, racing her, swims the whole stretch in real time in an extremely wide, faraway traveling shot. At another moment, Youfu is intimidated in his own restaurant by local thugs looking to collect on his brother’s debts, and the camera tracks sideways from the outside, observing the fractious exchange through curtains of falling rain and the fogged-up restaurant windows. Sequences like these create their own meaning and feel like masterful applications of that ancient unrolling, side-to-side technique to the cinematic form. But there are also times when we long to see a character’s reaction in closeup, or to get nearer to a pivotal moment in order to feel some of its emotion, rather than to observe it so dispassionately. We’re too removed to really know these characters, or to care for them as we should.
The film closes with a “to be continued” title, even though after two and a half hours, it has already continued a little longer than necessary. But Gu intends to make it the first of a trilogy, each set in a different riverside locale, and while “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” could be tighter and more exacting in its dramaturgy, it still marks an elegant, occasionally inspired debut that more than earns our anticipation for the vista we’ll uncover with the next turn of the scroll.