Mr. Tree (Hello! Shu Xian Sheng)
Director/Screenplay – Jie Han, Producer – Jia Zhang Ke, Photography – Yiu-Fai Lai, Music – Giong Lim, CGI Effects – ZR-Art, Production Design – Liu Qiang & Zhang Xiaobing. Production Company – Xstream Pictures
Wang Baoqiang (Shu), Tan Zhuo (Xiao Mei)
Shu, a man with neurological problems, lives in a small provincial village in China. The entire village is in the process of being uprooted and moved to make way for a mining operation. Shu falls for Xiao Mei, the deaf-mute daughter of a family in a neighbouring town. He proposes to her and a wedding is held. Just before the wedding, Shu has visions of his dead father and brother appearing to him prophesying disaster and problems that are going to occur with the mine.
This is another film festival oddity that would in all likelihood never even been granted a regular arthouse screening anywhere else. Judging from some of the other decidedly odd programming choices at the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival, no more than a smattering of festival attendees seemed that interested in Mr. Tree either. The title sounds odd enough that it feels like it should be a fantasy film, although it eventually becomes apparent that this is simply the English equivalent of the lead character’s name.
Mr. Tree takes a long time to give us any idea what it is about. It seems to be the story about the everyday life of a man in rural China. You are not entirely sure what is wrong with Shu – Wang Baoqiang plays the part full of facial tics and hyperactive arm movements, which gives you the impression he has cerebral palsy or some neurological disorder, while other characters less than charitably refer to him as a retard. The plot follows the various things that happen as Shu interacts with the people he knows around the community, tries to find a job and becomes involved in his cousin’s wedding. This section is perhaps more interesting as a Westerner for its portrait of modern China – such as where mining companies have the power to be able to order the relocation of entire towns (where vans drive through the streets with loudspeakers bribing people to move with offers of colour television sets), the presence of petty gangland activities, the traditions of a rural Chinese wedding, of how prevalent China’s pollution problems are – the town seems to lack any trace of greenery, for instance, not to mention that everyone in the film seems to have a major smoking problem (not a scene seems to go by without somebody lighting up or puffing on a cigarette).
The film eventually develops a plot of sorts when Wang Baoqiang starts to court deaf-mute Tan Zhuo. Her petulant responses and gradual warming to him has some appeal and here the film appears to segue into a relationship drama. The oddity of the film is that just when life starts to work out for the two of them, which would normally be the final act of a more traditional Western film, Mr. Tree takes a veer off into weirdness. Just before the wedding, Wang Baoqiang has visions of the ghosts of his dead father and brother turning up to offer warnings. He then gets rotten drunk and has a fight with his brother, before staggering off ceremonially carrying his bride off over his shoulder where we get a sense that things are starting to go wrong. She leaves him soon after upon discovering that the water has been turned off where they live. Shu’s ghosts continue to advise him, including telling him to hurry and get her back, while giving him clairvoyant advice about problems that will occur with the mine. These make his standing in the community rise and he is eventually made the mayor of the village. In the end scene, Tan Zhuo reconciles with him and they walk across a field hand-in-hand before a cut to a friend’s point-of-view where we see there is nobody beside him at all. We get the impression from the final shot that everything that has happened since Tan Zhuo left has been inside Wang Baoqiang’s imagination. It is an odd downer of an ending that makes for a film that puzzles far more than it ever gives a clear impression of what it is trying to say.