The “road movie” is not a literal genre like, say, detective fiction, but more of a metaphysical concept of a journey and its destination. In fact, it almost always begins being defined by its illusory or even mythological destination and ends being defined only by the journey – transcending its physical state into something more emotional and spiritual. This concept has held the fascination of many filmmakers, particularly recently with Korean director Song Il-gon with such films as Flower Island and Git. “South of the Clouds” is not just a film title, it’s a real place — an area within Yunnan province in China. The name itself conjures images of some mystical region unspoiled and detached from the rest of the world; to the film’s lead character Xu Daqin, it has been his lifelong dream to go there.
Daqin is a retired engineer whose wife passed away years ago, the cause of which is never explained in the film. He lives in an unnamed city in the north of China. His children are all grown up but still live at home and, to a great extent, depend on him for financial support. In his moments of despair, he dreams of Yunnan province, a place that hovers in his mind like an answer to all his questions. What the questions are we don’t yet know, and neither do his friends and family who don’t understand his desire to travel there at all.
He begins his journey on the train during which he tells the conductor that he’s “returning home” to Yunnan. This is important, as we learn that Daqin has never been there before and thus the reasons for his trip begin to slowly surface. Truly, he is returning “home”, but “home” is Daqin’s own youth — a time where his life was filled with possibilities and choices. What would have happened had he chose differently in his life? South of the Clouds examines the choices we make in our own lives and observes the many small events that occur to shape the journey our lives forge — good and bad.
This is the second film by novelist-turned-director Zhu Wen and his first film approved by the Chinese government. His first film Seafood was made without the governmental thumbs-up, thus making Zhu Wen the first “underground” director to make a government sanctioned film in China (this act was later followed by Jia Zhangke who made The World). The cinematography is more ambitious in the first part of the film (with a spectacular crane shot) but becomes less obtrusive through the course of the film as we sit and observe the many odd characters Daqin encounters. The lead performance by Li Xuejian is incredible as he encapsulates the lost Xu Daqin but manages to make the audience laugh just as often.
South of the Clouds is a beautiful film and very accessible for a newcomer to Chinese cinema. The film moves with a great pace and is sprinkled with plenty of comedic moments throughout. Highly recommended for those people who enjoy the journey more than the destination.