• Maria O'Brien

Introduction to a Screening of Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains

EAFFI Discoveries screening of Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (2019, dir Gu Xiaogang) on 13 October 2021 at the Irish Film Institute.

Introduced by Dr Qi Zhang, Assistant Professor, Dublin City University

School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies

Hello, everyone. It’s my privilege today to introduce the film Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.

It’s exciting to see many of you here today. This might be your very first cinema experience, or at least one of the first, since the Covid restrictions. So when I was asked to introduce this film, I felt it was an important task. I wondered what I should say in order to help you to have a great experience of the film, and perhaps leave with a bit more understanding of Chinese cinema and contemporary Chinese society. All within 3-4 minutes.

A very ambitious task, I know. Probably too ambitious.

So I decided to start by explaining the name of the film. A title shows the essence of a film, and addresses its theme and plot. Importantly, for a foreign language film like today’s, it’s great if the title also transmits an aspect of a different culture. So let’s take this as a starting point.

The original title of Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is “Chūnjiāng shuǐnuǎn”

(《春江水暖》), which literally means ‘the river becomes warm in spring’. It consists of four Chinese characters, common with Chinese films. It comes from a line in a poem written by Su Shi (苏轼) during the Song Dynasty. The full line it comes from is “Chūnjiāng shuǐnuǎn yā xiānzhī” (“春江水暖鸭先知”), meaning ‘ducks first know when the river becomes warm in spring’.

The poem, especially this line, is so well-known in China that almost everyone who has completed elementary education knows it. In other words, this film title activates the existing knowledge of a Chinese audience and triggers a series of images from the poem.

Why is it important to know the film title and understand its link with the poem? In order to answer that, we also need to explain a little bit about traditional Chinese painting. One vital element is the words inscribed on a painting. Those words can reveal the painting’s theme; they can be a commentary on the painting in the form of a poem; they can be a kind of preface or postscript for the painting. Therefore, Chinese painting is a combination of painting, poetry and calligraphy, all working together to express the painter’s feeling more completely than one art form could do along. This kind of artistic integration has been common since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

All this is to say: from knowing the film’s title and the poem it comes from, the audience can easily establish an association between the film and Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese painting is made on paper or silk, which is then turned on hand scrolls. Imagine opening such a hand scroll: the scenery painted upon it is gradually revealed to you, from left to right. To some extent, a painting in hand scroll form was almost like a film, long before the movie technique was invented.

In Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, there are a number of shots that work similarly to this hand scroll. Long takes show people’s activities along the bank of the Fuchun River. One of the most amazing long takes lasts 12 minutes, depicting a man first swimming in the river, then walking along its bank while chatting to the woman he is dating.

Furthermore, some of these long takes, used to portray the change of seasons, also employ Chinese painting techniques such as multi-spot perspective – also known as scatter perspective or moving perspective – to bring into focus aspects of the landscape and numerous human characters.

However, this association between poem and painting does not exist among a Western audience. The film’s title has thus changed: Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains. This is actually the name of a Yuan Dynasty painting by Huang Gongwang (黄公望). The painting, “Fù chūn shānjū tú” (《富春山居图》), depicts the scenery in Fuyang, southwest of Hangzhou, along the northern bank of the Fuchun River, and is considered one of Huang Gongwang’s greatest surviving masterpieces. The film is therefore successfully linked with traditional Chinese painting, contributing to a better understanding of its theme and plot.

Now: the plot of the film. I won’t say much about this, as I don’t want to spoil your experience. As a sociolinguist, I always try to identify the social issues embedded in a film. Here are some key phrases which you may later be able to link to the film.

The first one is ‘aging society’. China probably has the largest aging society in the world. In 1990, 5.6% of the population was aged 65 or above, about 64 million people. However, the population census in 2020 showed this to now be 13.5% – 191 million people. Improvements in living standards and healthcare have contributed to an increase in longevity in China, which poses challenges to the healthcare system and the support provided to the elderly.

The second one is “Xiāngqīn” (“相亲”), which roughly translates as ‘matchmaking’, whether by family members, friends or professional matchmakers. In China, parental help is widely acceptable in the matters of marriage and the selection of a spouse, despite some children expressing discomfort with parental involvement in their love lives.

The third one is ‘urbanisation’. A significant feature of China’s urbanisation is that it is land-centred or depends on land finance (Ye & Wu, 2014). In the pursuit of land-lease revenue, built-up urban areas have been rapidly expanding, driven by real estate development. Importantly, land-based urbanisation can have a negative impact on the provision of urban public green space (Zhang & Min, 2019), leading to the marginalisation of certain groups of people.

Last but not least, I know that most of you will probably understand the film through English subtitles. But just in case you speak Chinese, a large proportion of the dialogue is in fact in Zhejiang dialect, rather than Mandarin, and many cast members are non-professional actors. The pervasive use of dialect and amateur actors is a common feature of the sixth generation of Chinese film directors. (Whether Gu Xiaogang should be considered sixth-generation or not is beyond the scope of this introduction.)

This leads to a documentary style and realistic aesthetics, especially when a film is presenting an urban space in contemporary China. However, one of the risks is that when an actor speaks in an unauthentic accent – meaning he or she is not actually a native speaker of the dialect – it can jolt the viewer out of the film.

Okay, I’d better stop here. I could spend hours analysing every detail of this film. Now let’s follow the camera of Gu Xiaogang and observe the life of the people of Fuchun Mountain, along the Fuchun River.


Wong, W. (2014). Finding 'Love' in China: An Overview of Chinese Marriage Markets (BaiFaXiangQin) . Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 6(12). Retrieved from

Zhang Q. & Min G. (2019). A multimodal analysis of the discourse in the People's Daily. Chinese Language and Discourse, 10 (1):61-83.

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