What connection exists between the artist and modern, industrial life? Can an artist produce great work while constrained by the immediacies of urban living, or must the true artist escape, a la the Romantic poets, to the countryside, where the slower pace and natural surroundings help fertilize the imagination? Up the Mountain raises these questions in the context of an examination of an odd artist’s colony in remote China. The apprentices of the colony – mostly older women – shuttle between their daily lives in the village below and the peace of the colony, where they paint under the instruction and encouragement of the master, Shen Jinhua. Through a series of quiet, close observations, director Zhang Yang creates a portrait of the artist as a contingent, communal being – a portrait that, while perhaps slightly out of focus, is rapturously beautiful.
As a slice of life observational documentary, Up the Mountain is delightful – quiet, understated, but genuinely moving. Shen, a rather mysterious figure, offers advice and encouragement to the women painting under his care. His family grows, as his wife has their second child, a son, and Shen helps his much older daughter with emotional growing pains. Shen’s main helper, a young man from the village, wrestles with the question of his future, as he decides between a life of idyllic artistry and a marriage to a big-city woman who has no desire to settle down on the mountain. The chatty, vibrant women paint and gossip, debating serious issues like death and unfaithfulness in marriage with a light touch.
These moments get swallowed up sometimes as Zhang Yang attempts simultaneously to account for life in the village (Up the Mountain is the first in a planned trilogy of films about this area of China). The village scenes, while often interesting, clash a little with the mountain scenes – Yang never seems quite certain how they fit together in the picture he’s creating, so the film comes across as slightly out of focus, willing neither to impose a tight narrative nor let go of narrative entirely in favor of impressionistic filmmaking.
Up the Mountain’s slight structural hiccups cannot detract from its greatest strength, however: a film of precise and painstaking beauty, it contains some of the most jaw-dropping images I’ve ever seen in a documentary. One key to the film’s compositions is its aspect ratio (the proportion of height to width of the image onscreen). While most films today utilize a form of widescreen, with the width of the image roughly double that of the height, Yang makes the decision to present an image where the height is slightly more than the width, giving the frame the feel of a portrait painting.
In other hands this could be a gimmick, but Yang uses it carefully, creating unusual compositions. He often stacks shots vertically, as in a repeated type of shot that features a mountain in the background, a body of water in the middle ground, and a mountain road in the foreground. The film also explores Z-axis depth (the feeling of going into the image toward the background), capturing the long hallways of Shen’s house in ways that make them feel interminable. Combined with a vibrant color palette, these smart compositional choices make Up the Mountain a film of indelible images; I’ll especially cherish the shots of various village parades, which Yang captures from the ground and from a bird’s eye view. Appropriately, then, Up the Mountain is a film about artists that itself takes the visual image seriously, its aesthetic choices telling more about the act of creation than the story it conveys.