Gu Xiaogang Gets Personal Talking About His Sweeping Family Epic

By Bryan Grogan, September 23, 2019

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‘Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains’ is a scroll painting by Huang Gongwang, one of the four masters of the Yuan Dynasty. He began painting when he was 50, creating the above-mentioned masterpiece between 1348 and 1350, just four years before his death and when he was in his 80s. Depicting the gorgeous scenery of the Hangzhou countryside, the scroll recalls a more peaceful time in the city’s history. 

Rising director Gu Xiaogang’s film of the same name uses the painting to contrast this distant period with the social upheavals of his hometown in Fuyang district, Hangzhou, which lies in the shadow of the Fuchun mountains and on the banks of the Fuchun River. Gu’s epic 150-minute film follows the trials and tribulations of a family struggling to come to terms with societal changes that have become rife in China over the past 20 years, and which are growing in the buildup to the 2022 Asian Games, set to be staged in Hangzhou. 

“The river banks in Fuyang are now full of high-rises and cars. We wanted to try to paint this contemporary picture and interact with the scene from 600 years ago through film. We also wanted to place tradition in the present, in the fast and complex era of an information economy, and to inspire people to seek comfort from inside,” Gu tells us. 

The film opens with four grown-up brothers attending their mother’s birthday party. The celebrations establish the relationships between the main characters; the intimacy and conflicts that they share set us up for the heartbreak that will follow. Each of the four brothers represents a different viewpoint upon which the audience hangs. 

“The eldest brother represents the life of an ordinary man, the second represents poetry and distance, the third represents the underground and the fourth represents the era we are in,” Gu explains. “Through these four different careers, we were able to present a complete social landscape.”

Gu’s connection to these characters, and to the setting in which they are placed, is personal. “My hometown is in Fuyang,” he says. “When I was a child, my parents ran a restaurant, but in the past few years it was demolished as the city went through urban development changes. I wanted to create a piece that reflected this period of time. I went back to Fuyang to do research for the film, and the city’s ongoing changes were very stimulating, from past to present.”

Shot in a style reminiscent of documentary film, experimenting with extended long-shots that track life in motion on the Fuchun River, Gu uses the camera to focus and frame certain moments so as to heighten our intimacy with the characters. He drafted friends and family into the film to exacerbate the personality and emotion at play. The urban development that he personally experienced is depicted in the film as both boon and burden. Fuyang is being turned upside down and characters like the second son sacrifice their family homes in return for the major financial rewards that this urban development offers. 

Money and prosperity are predominant themes of the film. The eldest brother struggles to overcome a bad investment; the second brother strives to earn enough to give his son a sufficient dowry and apartment in which he can start his married life. The third brother, possibly the most fascinating of the four, is a divorcee taking care of a disabled son who has severe health problems. He earns his money gambling. We see his questionable behavior right from the film’s outset as he uses hongbao, which is due to be circulated during his mother’s birthday, to fund his gambling. At the same time, he stands out as the film’s most likeable character. We, the audience, are enthralled by this struggle between his inherent kindness and his repeated downfalls, which occur as a result of his bad decisions. 

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Image courtesy of Beijing Qu Jing Pictures

In a sense, the film is characterized by these contrasts and choices. The choice between right and wrong, between an honest life and one of crime, the choice to give up a familial home to be reimbursed in droves, the choice between love and a prosperous marriage. This is where the heartbreak comes in, as characters push and pull at one another, trying to force their own version of the truth. 

As it stands, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is set for a winter release in France, while talks are still underway for a Chinese cinema release in late 2019 or early 2020. As those close to the film say, they’re not inclined to rush the process. While the film was made on a small budget, it’s a stunning piece of art and they want the cinema releases to reflect that. With appearances at Cannes Film Festival and an award-winning appearance at First International Film Festival in the bag, there’s reason to be calm about proceedings. 

Further down the line, Gu has plans to expand on the ideas at play here over the course of two more films, making a ‘Scrolls Film’ trilogy. “The next volume will feature a new story and a new figure, but will be linked to the previous volumes.”

READ MORE: First Film Festival Is Giving China's Arthouse Cinema a Platform to Shine

[Cover image courtesy of Beijing Qu Jing Pictures]

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