Mr. Tree: Village Idiot

Mr. Tree is a quasi-dark comedy about a “village idiot” who haphazardly manages to get through life. After getting injured on the job–his fault for being careless and not keeping on the welder’s mask–Shu loses his job as a mechanic. However, he manages to convince his friend to let him work as a janitor at his elite school in the city. En route to the big city, Shu meets a deaf-mute girl, Xiao Mei, who he soon decides to marry. On his wedding day, his family and friends literally pushes him through the ceremony and celebration. This is because he was trapped in one of his ‘episodes’. Constantly tormented by memories of his dead father and brother and a family tragedy that occurred in 1986, Shu gets lost in hallucinations and have imaginary conversations. As flashbacks and hallucinations turn into premonitions, he soon loses touch with reality and along with that, his wife. Yet, in a weird twist of fate, one of his visions came true and the villagers honour him like a prophet. Whether it is by chance he made the right prediction or he truly acquired a gift, we do not know, but he seems to be content living in this state of mind, somewhere in between reality and imaginary.

The story of Shu (Shu means ‘tree’ in Chinese) is set against a small wintery mining village in China. In this village, people live in a simplistic environment and cope with what they have. However, technology – particularly the use of cell phones – has infiltrated through villagers’ lives. For instance, the nurse resorts to texting because she is bored and Shu communicates with Xiao Mei via SMS. Meanwhile, the village itself is transforming. As the mining industry advances, villagers are asked to move further away from the area and in compensation they get money and appliances.

The impact of urbanization on tiny villages in China is significant. People are uprooted and displaced to make way for new developments. In the film, we do not see where villagers move to, but assume they have found a place elsewhere. Shu’s character is perhaps symbolic to this occurrence. Shu is caught in between hallucinations and reality, past and present, as the village is caught in between urbanization/modernization and the traditional way of life. Both are in limbo. The intensity of Shu’s hallucinations increases towards the end of the film, an analogy to speed of modernization in China?

Director-screenwriter Han Jie’s second feature Mr. Tree is a production under famous filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It is no surprise that the weary and chilly setting in this film resembles that of Jia’s The World. The World is also a film about people being displaced and the rate of modernization in China. In both films, you feel a certain bleakness as the story develops and you become sympathetic to the situation and the people. Nonetheless, Mr. Tree offers a satirical view on the issue and you feel more annoyed by Shu’s zany character than sympathetic.

Athena Wong

Mr. Tree (Hello Shu Xiansheng)
China, 2011
Dir: Han Jie