Painted between 1348 and 1350, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is one of the few surviving works from painter Huang Gongwang and considered by many to be one of China’s finest works. It’s a painting of rivers and mountains, and the movie that shares its title also shares this quality.

Made by first-time filmmaker Gu Xiaogang, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is indeed about rivers and mountains. It is also about three generations of a family over two years in Hangzhou City: A sick matriarch with high blood pressure and dementia who seems incapable of dying; a no-good uncle with gambling debts; a daughter who resents the burden laid on her back; and a granddaughter who is willing to ostracize herself for love. In between them all, the spaces that connect and the spaces that separate.

While the family dynamics are good, what stands out most in Dwelling is Gu’s style: Specifically, how Gu uses pans as ellipses. In Western cinema, we have been trained that when a camera disengages from its subject — and starts to look elsewhere — the story has concluded. Think of how many movies end with a camera floating high into the sky, reducing the protagonists, and all their conflicts and triumphs, to small parts of a larger whole. It’s like listening to a chord resolving.

Gu does not use the camera in this manner. Or, if he is, he’s using it constantly — continually resolving minor moments without moving on to different stories. His camera is constantly floating upward and sideways, focusing on something else — often a laborer doing their job. For the first 30 minutes of Dwelling, this technique is a little distracting and distancing. For the next two hours, it works wonders.

Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains is a movie about class, money, and a China that’s leaving many behind. It seems perfect that Gu would reference an ancient work to ground his modern way of seeing. And while the aesthetics of Gu might be foreign to Western audiences, his story is anything but. Funny how that is.

Directed by Gu Xiaogang
Produced by Suey Chen, Megan Sung
Beijing Qu Jing Pictures, Not rated, Running time 150 minutes