The role of Chinese filmmaking giant Jia Zhang-ke as producer of first-time writer-director Han Jie's "Hello! Shu Xian Sheng" ("Mr. Tree") doesn't properly convey its offbeat vibe. While loaded with considerably interesting ideas, it lacks the requisite energy to link them together. The story follows troubled young slacker Shu (Baoqiang Wang), the resident of a small village who loses his job and can't figure out where he belongs in life. Haunted by the death of his father and older brother years earlier, he grows increasingly disconnected to the world around him. Meanwhile, the plot meanders along in search of a reason to exist, not unlike Shu (whose name means "tree") himself.
However, the lack of an immediate purpose isn't reason enough to dismiss "Mr. Tree." That comes from the complete absence of any rationale for caring about the main character and his existential plight, which consumes each moment of screen time. Somewhat salvaged by Wang's klutzy performance, Jie's screenplay begins in a conventional fashion and then starts to drift.
After screwing up his job in a relative's motor repair shop, Shu meets Xiaomei (Zhuo Tan), a shy deaf girl to whom he's immediately attracted. After a tangent involving Shu's attempt to land a gig as a tutor, he turns back to his romantic pursuit and promptly decides to propose marriage. Neither character has enough depth to make their relationship credible, although that actually makes sense considering what comes next.
One awkward wedding and an even more awkward sex scene later, the relationship falls apart. So begins the darker section of "Mr. Tree," in which Shu confronts the demons of his past through a series of disturbing dreams and visions involving his relatives' ghosts and an upcoming disaster at the local mine. At first a rather curious deadpan comedy, "Mr. Tree" transforms into less explicable "Donnie Darko" knock-off. It's hard to say which is works better since neither one finds its footing.
Despite many shortcomings, "Mr. Tree" plays more like an inspired concept that never find its direction than an outright bomb that never should have been made in the first place. As such, it puts Jie on the map as a curious new voice who might have the capacity for strong character-driven drama. He simply can't figure out what kind of story he wants to tell: The stronger concept involves Shu morphing into a dazed prophet of doom, but it arrives too late in the game. The movie loses its way long before Shu loses his mind.
criticWIRE grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Jia's name attached to it, "Mr. Tree" is likely to continue its path along the festival circuit, but probably not much further. In North America, it may find a welcome home on the Asian American festival circuit, which will help establish Jie's name.