Ding Bo has trouble coping with his father replacing his deceased mother with another woman, while Nan Feng has left the confines of her small village to escape a history of family violence and alcoholism. Fatso is marginalised purely down to his obese appearance and therefore the constant target to remorseless bulling. The three are bound together by tragic circumstances, forming a friendship based on a sense loyalty and friendship in adverse circumstances, living together somewhat happily. This dynamic is ruptured by the addition of a fourth unlikely member, a retired opera singer Chang Yueqin (Sylvia Chang) that offers them rooms for rent. Obnoxious at first, she will take up the matriachal role for the youngsters, as the tri’s presences unintentionally help her overcome the grief and sadness for the recent loss of her son.
The atmosphere is initially an uncomfortable one, well crafted by Li Yu with unstable shots and an eye for composition, in which the personalities of the four clash in a series of cluttered rooms and claustrophobic hallways. Space plays an important role in the film, with a divided apartment that will end up forcing the four to get along and even grow accustomed to each other. The small flat manages to accommodate places to hide, places to cry and places to keep secrets. Eventually, emotions evolve from isolation and malice to a warm and candid friendship.
The transition, however, could have been much smoother between the different levels of evolution. The film tends to jump from depicting a household at war – with two parties that despise and play tricks on each other – to conveying a sense of sudden warmth between the four characters. Another element that seems forced is the sudden inclusion of a romantic subplot between Ding Bo and Nan Feng – although there is a sense of sexual tension between the two leads, this sudden love story seems misjudged and doesn’t feel quite as natural as perhaps it should.
Buddha Mountain is a symbolic film to a certain extent: there are three recurrent themes which the film revolves around, namely roads and railroads, destruction/reconstruction and life/death. The roads seem to signify changes, while the earthquake shattered town and temple (a site of exploration of the young trio) stand for the four’s lives – reconstructed in a way.
The acting is solid throughout, with Fan Bingbing and Sylvia Chang in particular doing an excellent job in portraying their troubled characters.This is Fan Bingbing’s second film with Li after the critically acclaimed Lost in Beijing (2007). Cheng Boling and Fei Long suffer from under-developed characters however, Fei Long deserves special mention for investing the one-dimensional Fatso with an air of dignity, credibility and warmth.
In short, Buddha Mountain is a rewarding experience if you have the patience to scale its lofty heights. It does not drift into an overly melodramatic tearjerker which the opening 30 minutes promises (threatens, depending on your persuaision) but rathewr gently uncovers some of the mysteries offers. It is an enjoyable, gentle and touching tale, skillfully told by the emerging Li Yu. The perfect anti-dote to the bombast and macho posturing of certain other Chinese films.
Sabina Pasaniuc (CUEAFS)