In remote China, high up in the mountains it’s the end of autumn and the endless stretch of forest is tinted brown and orange. Waves of cool mist descend from high above the mountain peaks down into the icy rivers, leaving a streak of silver on the landscape. Lu Sheng’s visually arresting feature debut Here, There gets its European Premiere here at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Screening as part of the New Perspectives programme Here, There interweaves three stories that address concerns in contemporary China, in particular the problems and anxieties facing young people in a country that’s in constant fluctuation. In Shanghai a trainee waiter gets tangled up in the mysterious activities of a female customer whilst in Paris a Chinese student studying abroad is mugged and finds help from an unlikely source. Up in the mountain a reindeer herder walks the lonely forest paths anticipating a visit from his wife and young son.
It’s not surprising Here, There is so visually moving as Sheng studied cinematography in Paris and has been working alongside premier Chinese filmmakers like JIA Zhangke and WANG Bing for the last decade. Coming from a photographic background can be a problem for first time directors as they languish too much attention on the camera and not enough on the story and characters. But Sheng doesn’t have that problem here. Some of the compositions are simply stunning though: a petit woodland bird framed dead in the centre, the fall foliage creating a hazy mosaic in the background, an old soldier wandering through a lonely war memorial, the white graves sticking out of the earth like polished slabs of bone.
But Here, There is more than a visual poem it’s a damming but subtle critique of modern China. No more is this evident than in the story thread set in Shanghai, where an enigmatic young woman gets swallowed up by the big city. With no close family, little money and terrible living conditions and the great irony that she works for an insurance firm but cannot afford any herself, her story is a tragic one and is all too universal. How many us in our twenties have questioned our place in the world? In constant doubt where we’re going? Ultimately this is a film about lost souls, struggling to find their feet in a modern world that can be merciless. The old ways are dying out as we see in the rural story arc and the filmmakers lament for this loss. The reindeer herder is one of few left up in the mountain, his wife urges him to return to the towns and take up work there. His life is simple and hard but also beautiful. Scenes between him and his son carrying out the day to day duties, including cutting and carrying blocks are ice are a joy to watch, Sheng employing documentary style realism to capture these moments.Here, There is a striking film and an important one. If we gave up a couple of hours from our busy lives to this movie we would find a lot of deep truths.