The dominant narrative of China’s past few decades has been one of urbanization. After Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening”, hundreds of millions have moved from rural areas to urban centers to pursue economic opportunities. Overnight cities like Shenzhen have sprung up, while — on the flip side — rural areas have started withering away. In China, cities are the future; the countryside is the past.
Cue director Yang Heng’s film Ghost in the Mountains, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. Though the movie’s primary aim is not social commentary, it’s a powerfully artistic piece that will force you to contemplate about the impacts of urbanization on China’s countryside.
While many movies address China’s increasing rural-urban divide, most of them take place in only the city, or highlight a journey between the two spheres. Ghost in the Mountains is unique in this sense. The film completely takes place in rural Hunan and, beyond the empty halls of a hospital, shows absolutely no sign of the urbanizing world outside. However, it’s through absence, and silence, that the film speaks volumes.
Ghost in the Mountains features a man named Lao Liu (“Sixth Brother”) who returns to his rural Hunan hometown after a long, unexplained absence. Other than his old friend A Jie, there’s almost nobody left — most people have either died or moved away. What’s left are echoes of the past. An old flame of Lao Liu’s happens to be passing through town on a visit before returning to Shenzhen, where she’s getting married. The two revisit their old haunts, reminiscing about bygone happier days whilst strolling through beautifully desolate landscapes. Lao Liu’s old teacher is now a monk living ascetically in the mountains; there’s no children around to teach anymore.
Everything about the film is muted — dialog, settings, movement, sound. Lao Liu’s not much of a talker, and neither is anyone else. While the film’s landscapes are strikingly beautiful (Hunan is the home of natural wonders like Zhangjiajie, after all), they’re also desolate. The camera pans at a snail’s pace through the Hunanese scenery, lingering on immaculate nothingness for what seems like forever. The only diegetic music comes from cellphone ringtones which, at strategic intervals, always cut some conversation short at an inopportune moment.
With absence — of people, music, movement, and ultimately the cities that are causing that absence — Ghost in the Mountains paints a poignant portrait of the effects of urbanization on China’s rural communities. We see, and feel, that the countryside is dying. Life, hope, and dreams — they’re all fading away, soon to become nothing more than ghosts in the mountains.
Ghost in the Mountains (Chinese: 空山异客) — Dialog in Hunanese Mandarin. Directed by Yang Heng. Premiered February 2017. Running time 2hr 16min. Starring Tang Shenggang, Liang Yu, and Shang Yutong.