When tradition meets modernity

Chinese director Zhang Yang's latest work, ‘Up the Mountain’, was shown at IFFAM

Cinematheque‧Passion screened ‘Up the Mountain’, the latest venture of celebrated mainland Chinese director, Zhang Yang. It is one of the six films in the ‘New Chinese Cinema’ unit of the 3rdedition of the International Film Festival & Awards • Macao (IFFAM). 

Born in 1967, Zhang Yang gave up his studies as a Chinese literature student in college and instead went to study in the Director’s Department of the Central Theatre Academy. He made his firstdirectorial debut ‘Spicy Love Soup’ in 1997, an instant hit of the year, and became one of the most active Chinese directors. Since then, he has directed multiple feature films, such as‘Shower’ (1999), ‘Quitting’ (2001), ‘Sunflower’ (2005), ‘Getting Home’ (2007), ‘Driverless’ (2010), ‘Full Circle’ (2012) and ‘Soul on a String’ (2016). His films have played at many international film festivals (Venice, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, San Sebastian included) and won many awards. 

In 2015, his first feature-lengthdocumentary ‘Paths of The Soul’ had its world premiere at Toronto. The documentary is viewed as a milestone in his career, marking the shift from commercial films to arthouse productions. It tells an extraordinary chronicle of ordinary Tibetans undertaking a 1,200-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa. The film captures the stunning scenery of Tibet from winter to spring, and the character undergo disasters, accidents, as well as struggles and growth. When released in the mainland last year, the film took over 100 million RMB at the box office, a rare number for arthouse productions. 

In a sense, ‘Up the Mountain’ can be seen as a continuation of ‘Paths of the Soul’. In addition to sharing a cinematographer and executive producer, both also carry clear personal stamp of Zhang Yang: simple, natural, and down to earth. The two documentaries focus on two ethnic minorities in the southwestern part of China respectively: ‘Paths of the Soul’ on Tibetan people, and ‘Up the Mountain’ on Bai people. 

In ‘Up the Mountain’, artist Shen Jianhua moved from Shanghai to a remote mountain village years ago. His drawing lessons have a profound effect on the lives of the people who take them. The master painter’s home is an open house for his painting guests. One of Shen’s pupils is impressed by his modern lifestyle and wonders if he and his new wife should move to the city.

Meanwhile, elderly ladies produce colourful paintings of everything that goes on in the village: New Year’s party, new-born kittens, a banquet. Director Zhang Yang captures their chance, sometimes comical conversations, and follows the calm rhythm of their daily lives. The result is a film about the warmth of the open fire, the sound of snapping corncobs and simmering fish soup. Zhang shows life in the mountains in fabulous views with great depth and geometric precision. Every frame is like a painting, and the stunning compositions demand the same calm and attention of the viewer as the craftsmanship of the painter.

‘Up the Mountain’ premiered at theInternational Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world's largest documentary film festival held annually since 1988. It also was one of the twelve items selected at the IDFA Competition for Feature-Length Documentary. 

The set of ‘Up the Mountain’ is in Dali, a place of special significance to Zhang Yang. In 1998, Zhang Yang travelled to Dali, in Yunnan province, and fell in love with the place at once. Years later, he moved his home to Dali, and wrote the scripts for several films there. To him, Dali is the base of his creation and source of his inspirations. He has always wanted to portray the remote territory in his film as it is—not just a popular tourist destination where romance happens, as is often described in popular culture. 

‘Up the Mountain’ depicts many customs and rituals that have gradually disappeared in the Han nationality but are still preserved by the Bai people. In the land of Dali, traditional ways and modern lifestyles are gently blended together and are skillfully recorded by the lens.