Hello Mr. Tree: Film Review

A satire that bridges the personal and political with fantasy and black humor.

To fuse an idiosyncratic character study with a subtle expose on controversial phenomena in China is indeed ambitious for young writer-filmmaker Han Jie.

SHANGHAI — Hello Mr. Tree is a dark fable on greed and guilt told in an absurdist key, yet shot with documentary-like verisimilitude. It weaves the strange fate of a misfit, who could be an idiot or a seer, into the backdrop of a rural community that’s ruthlessly uprooted by a private mining venture.

To fuse an idiosyncratic character study with a subtle expose on controversial phenomena in China is indeed ambitious for young writer-filmmaker Han Jie. The story arc initially appears to be as lost and listless as the protagonist and his spiritual stasis is matched by a stuttering narrative rhythm that can be baffling. However, the film takes off spectacularly in an ambiguous and symbolic third act, in which fantasy and reality collide.

Hello Mr Tree is produced by Jia Zhangke, so with his festival cache, it should branch out to a wide range of festivals.

Shu (Wang Baoqiang), whose name means tree in Chinese, is a motor mechanic in a small village in the northeastern province of Jilin. His neighbor Er Zhu is in cahoots with a private mining company engaged in illegal land seizure. Through Shu’s own voice-over and fragmented flashbacks, one learns of a family tragedy in 1986.

Blighted by the past, Shu becomes spiritually and sexually sapped, incapable of separating dreams and hallucinations from reality. His marriage to a deaf-mute girl Xiaomei (Tan Zhuo) falls apart. He refuses to move even after the entire village has been lured into a resettlement. In an ironic twist, some of his visions come true and he is revered as a prophet.

The casting of Wang slyly subverts his screen image as the impossibly naïve and good-natured bumpkin (Blind Shaft, World Without Thieves) whose innocence made hardened villain repent. Perched on a tree like a frightened animal, or contorting his limbs like an epileptic, Shu is a pitiable yet disturbing figure. He lends a crazed menace to the role’s clownish behavior, and keeps one unsure of whether he is a visionary, a nutcase or a self-serving conman.

Han’s debut feature, Walk on the Wild Side, gave an electrifying though romanticized representation of male violence. Male rowdiness also erupts habitually in this film, but here it is ridiculed. Their aggressiveness is given a credible context by the village’s cold, decaying atmosphere.

The snowy, barren and immense landscapes of rural Northern China are captured in starkly poetic shots. Tighter editing is needed to remedy the occasional sense of repetitiveness and fragmentation in the narrative, especially Shu’s stint as a janitor in a friend’s school in the capital city Changchun.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival, Competition
Production companies: Shanghai Film Group Corporation, Beijing Bona Film & Culture Communication Co. Ltd., Xstream Pictures
Cast: Wang Baoqiang, Tan Zhuo, He Jie
Director-screenwriter: Han Jie
Producer: Jia Zhangke
Executive producers: Ren Zhonglun, Yu Dong, Jia Zhangke
Director of photography: Lai Yiu-Fai
Art director: Zhang Xiaobing
Music: Lim Giong
Costume designer: Li Changsheng
Editor: Matthieu Laclau, Bai Chengxun
No rating, 92 minutes