Mr. Tree is at once an elliptical, offbeat character study about a village idiot who might just be a prophet, and a subtle but sly commentary on rampant urbanization in China. It is also an auspicious second feature from director Jie Han, whose distinctive voice is already more than clear.
The vast and snowy landscapes of northern China form the striking backdrop to the story of Shu - whose name translates to "tree" in Mandarin - a clownish mechanic who resides in a small mining village in the province of Jilin. Shu has a reputation as a slacker, a drunk and a danger to himself and others. He blinds himself temporarily while welding.
He meets a fetching mute named Xiaomei who works at a massage parlour and decides to marry her, but this too falls apart. Meanwhile, Shu's village seems as doomed as he is.
The film opens on a van saddled with loudspeakers, which roams the village offering consumer goods as bribes to townsfolk in the hope that they'll willingly uproot themselves to make way for modern property developments. As with so many rural places in China, a way of life is vanishing under the wheels of progress.
Teased by hallucinations and haunted by tragic events from his past (which we learn of through flashbacks and voice-over), Shu struggles with an ever-loosening grip on reality. Yet when one of his visions manifests as real, his fellow villagers come to regard him as clairvoyant. Can Shu genuinely see into the future? Is he actually just a basket case?
Or is he perhaps more lucid than he seems, and pulling a fast one on everyone?