Buddha Mountain--Film Review

Quasi-coming of age drama that only misfires when it gets needlessly romantic.

Three friends mature and a grieving mother embraces life anew in writer-director Li Yu's graceful exploration of loss and connection in Buddha Mountain, a film that could easily have been a rote, melodramatic weeper but is saved from that fate by some astute writing, strong performances and an almost utter dearth of expected devices.

Buddha Mountain is blessed with a cast of pan-Asian stars that should guarantee it moderate success in the region. Broad-spectrum festivals are likely to come calling, and the film's mainstream subject matter and high production values could make an art house release in select urban centers in Europe and North America a distinct possibility for creative distributors. 

Ding Bo (Chen Po Lin, think a young Takeshi Kaneshiro before the surgeries) and his friends Nan Feng (Fan Bingbing) and Fei Zao aka Fatso (Fei Long) are a trio of 20-something outsider-y types that have no intention of sitting exams and getting into universities. When they need a new home for assorted reasons, they answer an ad placed by lonely, retired Chinese opera singer Chang Yue Qin (the awesome-as-usual Sylvia Chang), who is mourning the death of her son, and move into her sprawling Chengdu apartment. Right off the bat, the foursome clash over lifestyle and values, with the bratty trio seeing fit to steal from her and invade her privacy. However, slowly but surely a bond among them develops and everyone eventually learns something from the next. 

Although there are jumps in the growth of the characters — and as such, the story — that seem to come out of nowhere (in one minute the kids find Chang irritating and “crazy,” in the next they're fussing over her following a suicide attempt), it's hard to find serious fault when the film has such an intense veracity otherwise. The “kids” start the film living willfully guilt-free, self-involved lives and grow into young adults. Chang starts off as a withdrawn hard-nose wallowing in remorse.

Watching the young trio teach Chang to let go and live, and in turn Chang teaching her boarders about responsibility — and acting as surrogate family for each other — without hysterics is a treat not commonly found in mainstream Asian cinema. In addition, Ding Bo's crew's friendship is based on genuine affection; Fatso's sole purpose is not to be the butt of jokes.

Buddha Mountain goes astray when it detours into romantic angst and sets aside its more compelling central story for a stretch of the third act. Ding Bo and Nan Feng's nascent romance is more of a distraction than a means of revealing more about the two characters. Li and co-writer Fang were doing fine beforehand and the love story simply comes across as forced (one expected device the film succumbs to). That, in turn, takes some of the wind out of the narrative sails, and too much of what follows their relationship troubles feels like filler. With the gratuitous romantic segment excised, Buddha Mountain would clock in at a more tightly focused and consistently engaging 90 minutes or so.

Section: Tokyo International Film Festival, Competition

Sales/Production: Laurel Films Company Ltd.

Producer: Fang Li.

Director: Li Yu.

Screenwriters: Li Yu, Fang Li.

Executive producer: Li Jingwei, Fang Li.

Director of Photography: Zeng Jian.

Production Designer: Liu Weixin.

Music: Peyman Tazdanian.

Editor: Karl Riedl.

Cast: Sylvia Chang, Fan Bingbing, Chen Po Lin Fei Long, Jin Jing Fang Li, Bao Zhenjiang.

No rating, 104 minutes