The 18:15 showing of Mr.Tree in the largest screen of Hakata City’s T-joy cinema was decidedly empty in comparison to the previous day’s screening of the spellbindingly brilliant About Elly (Asghar Farhadi). Punters came in their droves leaving nary an unoccupied seat in sight while the Chinese contender for this year’s Audience Award was attended by barely a quarter of the numbers. Could this have been just a case of bad timing? Perhaps it was a damning insight in to the quality that was to come? Or was it a reflection of public sentiment in the wake of sticky political tensions between host nation and that of the product? Awards for best film and best director at Shanghai’s Film Festival and a producing credit for Jia Zhangke belie the amateurish assembly of ideas that director Han Jie crams into his sophomore effort.
Mr . Tree is an offbeat, absurdist drama with just a touch of Kaurismaki about it. Set in a snowy, decaying town in rural China we follow Shu, a clownish, chain-smoking mechanic - and also a bit of a drunkard - whose ineptitude leads him to losing his job in an accident that nearly blinds him. Once his Mr . Tree is an offbeat, absurdist drama with just a touch of Kaurismaki about it. Set in a snowy, decaying town in rural China we follow Shu, a clownish, chain-smoking mechanic - and also a bit of a drunkard - whose ineptitude leads him to losing his job in an accident that nearly blinds him. Once his sight returns, he visits the capital of the province of Jilin with his friends and encounters the pretty, deaf-mute Xiao Mei whom he plans to marry. From this point, Shu suffers a series of letdowns. At first, he leaves his town for the city to work for his friend as a cleaner, but after seeing his friend’s marriage deteriorate he decides to return home. On the day of his wedding, he experiences vivid hallucinations of his deceased brother that shake him so much that the ceremony turns into a disaster. And just as a mining project in his village starts to uproot the homes of his friends and family, Shu’s mind drifts from reality to fantasy and his bright personality begins to fade.
Playing Shu is Wang Baoqiang, a well-known character actor in mainland China. He is the best thing in the film – largely thanks to being the only well-written character in the picture - and he takes on his role with convincing virtuosity. He is at once lovable and repugnant, and always unpredictable. His moments with Xioa Mei are sweet and innocent, vaguely recalling Chaplin in their forced silences. Xiao Mei has to write to communicate and their exchanges are directed with a deft touch, albeit without much humor. The bit-part players do not profit from the same pen, with some ending up becoming jarring obstacles. An ill-judged scene in which a friend and his wife have it out over a girl’s text message feels like a needless and empty foray into domestic politics but is given as foreground action nonetheless.
More could have been made of the more charming elements of the plot – the awkward budding romance between the two leads, the would-be fish-out-of-water situation that occurs when Shu turns from bum to impromptu seer. But Jie plays it out all too seriously belying his protagonist’s playful, childlike quality and making the all-important sociological concerns of the film a harder sell. The film shows signs of wanting to be several things at once: a romantic comedy, a surrealist character study, a socialist drama, but succeeds in none, while failing to engage on a narrative level. Moreover, the final act ends up flitting in between reality and delusion so often you end up wondering if anything was real at all.
The deterioration of the village and the sense of impending takeover are played out well. And Jie’s intentions in exploring the extraordinarily rapid urbanization of China are clearly well-meaning. But in its puzzling plotting and what one can only assume as a deliberately uneven tone, Mr. Tree is rather hard to analyze, and even harder to love. A film that is so irreverent and uninterested in the cause of its viewer it becomes immune to criticism. In this sense, it finds itself in the same kind of oblique self-containment as a David Lynch movie. But unlike the latter, Mr Tree holds no real aesthetic merit nor succeeds as an “experience” (perhaps with the exception of the experience of sheer befuddlement). By the end, it’s clear that Jie isn’t interested in encouraging our response, emotional or otherwise, instead he takes the liberty of short-cutting through the story and leaves us somewhat cold.
Written by Kenjo McCurtain
Written by Kenjo McCurtain