Gu Xiaogang's Dwelling by the West Lake (2023) tackles the theme of spiritual awakening through the story of a son trying to rescue his mother from a pyramid scheme. The film combines Gu’s distinctive ‘scrolling’ style with a more conventional narrative.
Gu Xiaogang’s debut film, Dwelling by Fuchun Mountains (2019), painted a portrait of his fast-changing hometown in eastern China.The verb ‘painted’ is used less figuratively than usual here; Gu has described Fuchun Mountains as a ‘scroll montage’ inspired by the traditional Chinese art form, and the influence is clearly conveyed by the slow, careful shots (or camera strokes) that compose the film. Instead of working with professional actors, Gu directed people he knew personally, creating a ‘fictionalized documentary’ of a family’s life over the course of a single year. Fuchun Mountains was selected as the closing film of the Cannes Critics’ Week, earning Gu a reputation as a rising auteur.
Against this background, Gu’s second feature Dwelling by the West Lake (2023) is a jarring shift towards an ostensibly more crowd-pleasing style of filmmaking. Despite being marketed as ‘scroll two’ to the Fuchun Mountains, the aesthetic and narrative sensibilities of the films have little in common. Of course, the issue is not the departure in itself, but the execution. In West Lake, Gu attempts to recalibrate his artistic vision within the parameters of a popular genre film, but the resulting amalgamation is weaker than the sum of its parts.
West Lake is technically more polished than its predecessor, with professional actors and hectically choreographed crowd scenes.There are some gorgeous long takes, lingering over tea plantations and forests, which echo back to Fuchun Mountains; but in stark contrast, they ‘function’ here as mere interludes to scenes in service of the plot. Most of the runtime is taken up by poorly paced, humourlessly melodramatic confrontations between mother and son & within the cult of commerce she gets entangled in. At first, the juxtaposition of serene landscapes and high-decibel drama appears deliberate and intriguing in itself. However, the latter comes to dominate the texture of the film too definitively, devouring any semblance of subtlety.
While the framing of the main storyline suggests high-minded themes of awakening and the cognitive dissonance of desire in the modern world, the narrative is ultimately too obtuse and the symbols too flat to allow for meaningful inquiry. Instead, an unresolved subplot emerges as one of the most interesting aspects of the film. The audience finds out early on that the father is likely a homosexual, and the mother blames him for ‘ruining her and her son’s lives’. The character of the father never appears in the film. Whether the choice to leave him hidden was artistically intentioned from the start, or linked to the ongoing censure of homosexuality in China, it only serves to amplify this unseen, consciously or unconsciously concealed queerness as a background theme.
Following his beautifully meditative debut, Gu Xiaogang wants to ‘face the audience’, but loses heart. While technically impressive, Dwelling by the West Lake comes across as an artistic regression.