Mr. Tree is a dark fable on greed and guilt told in an absurdist key, yet shot with documentary-like verisimilitude. It weaves the strange fate of a misfit, who could be an idiot or a seer, into the backdrop of a rural community that's ruthlessly uprooted by a private mining venture.
To fuse an idiosyncratic character study with a subtle background on controversial economic issues in China is indeed ambitious for second time writer-filmmaker Han Jie. The story arc initially appears to be as lost and listless as the protagonist and his spiritual stasis is matched by a stuttering narrative rhythm that can be baffling. However, the film takes off unexpectedly in an ambiguous but symbolic third act, in which fantasy and reality collide.
Shu, whose name means "tree" in Chinese, is a motor-mechanic in a small village in the Northeastern Province of Jilin. His neighbor Er Zhu is engaged in illegal land seizure in cahoots with a private mining company. Through Shu's own voice-over and fragmented flashbacks, one learns of a family tragedy in 1986.
Blighted by the past, Shu has a setback in both spirit and emotion, incapable of separating dreams and hallucinations from reality. His marriage to a deaf-mute girl Xiaomei falls apart. He refuses to move out even after the entire village has been lured into a resettlement. In an ironic twist, some of his visions come true and he is revered as a prophetic.
The casting of Wang Baoqiang as Shu slyly subverts his screen image as the impossibly naive and good-natured bumpkin whose innocence makes hardened villains repent. Perched on a tree like a frightened animal, or contorting his limbs like an epileptic, Shu is a pitiable yet disturbing figure. His past is scarred by brutality and injustice; consequently his present is stagnant and dysfunctional; his future is controlled by relentless forces of greed. He lends a crazed menace to the role's clownish behavior, and keeps one unsure of whether he is a visionary, a nut-case or a self-serving con-man.
In Han's debut feature Walk on the Wild Side, gives an electrifying, but romantic representation of male violence. Male rowdyism also erupts habitually in this film, but there is little male bonding or warmth. Instead, male aggressiveness is given a credible context by the village's cold, decayed atmosphere. The snowy, inhospitable landscapes of rural Northern China are captured in starkly poetic shots.