Mountain May Depart
Directed by: Zhangke Jia.
Written by: Zhangke Jia.
Starring: Tao Zhao (Tao), Yi Zhang (Zhang Jinsheng), Jing Dong Liang (Liangzi), Zijian Dong (Dollar), Sylvia Chang (Mia).
Jia Zhangke has become China’s leading director of the past two decades by making films about the double edged sword that is China’s opening to the West and moving towards capitalism. He often makes films set in his small hometown of Fenyang, a mining community, which stands in for China at large. He has been a controversial filmmaker in China – his first few films were done without state sanction, and although since 2004’s The World, he has had that, that doesn’t mean his films always get released there – like his last film, the masterpiece A Touch of Sin, about the rise in random violence in China, which won a prize at Cannes, was released around the world, had a release date set in China, and then just didn’t come out (as far as I know, that’s still true of that film). His follow-up to that film, Mountains May Depart, finds Jia in familiar territory – make in Fenyang, for a triptych of stories – one in 1999, one in 2014 and one in 2025 – that focuses on one family, and those that surround them. Jia uses different aspect ratios for each section – starting very boxy in 1999 (1.37:1), expanding in 2014 (1.85:1) and even more in 2025 (2.35:1). With each segment, the world open to these characters expands, and yet they grow increasingly isolated and disconnected from each other.
The first, and longest, segment of the film initially seems like the most hopeful. The film opens with a wonderful choreographed dance number set to the Pet Shop Boys “Go West” (a staple of my middle school dances – and now I feel old), sung by Tao (the amazing Tao Zhao, Jia’s wife and frequent star) and others celebrating the New Year. A love triangle forms around the pretty Tao as both the wealthy entrepreneur, Zhang (Yi Zhang) and the poorer mining worker Liangzi (Jing Dong Loang) fall for her, which of course ruins the friendship the three of them had (it makes it hard to be friends with someone who buys the mine you work for, and then fires you). It would be easy to think that Tao picks Zhang because of his money – and perhaps that is part of it. But more than that, there are other reasons – Zhang is better looking, more effortlessly charming, and unlike Liangzi, who more quietly sulks, he actually makes his feelings known to Tao (it’s obvious Liangzi feels the same way – but he never says it). The segment, that starts on that high note of Go West, and for a while feels like a lot of fun, where all the characters are hopeful for their future, becomes melancholy by the end – Tao needs to make a decision, and no matter what she does, that closes other doors, and people will get hurt.
The second segment takes place 15 years later, in 2014. Zhang has become even wealthier than he was in 1999 – but he and Tao are now divorced. He’s moved to Shanghai – taking their son with them – and she’s alone in Fenyeng (Liangzi hasn’t been there in years). When her father dies, she gets her son back for a few days – but it’s clear that neither one of them really know what to say to each other. Her son, named Dollar, has a life in Shanghai – and a new stepmother (he calls her Mommy), and barely knows Tao, who now has a lot of money, but is desperately alone and lonely. Liangzi returns to Fenyeng because he needs money – years of working in the mines has made him sick.
The third segment takes place in Australia, in 2025 – and is almost entirely in English, Dollar (now played by Zijian Dong) is an University student, who hasn’t seen his mother in years, no longer speaks any language other than English, and has grown distant from his father – who has become a paranoid gun nut, who it is strongly implied fled China before he could be arrested. Dollar feels disconnected from everything – he wants to drop out of school, but he does develop a bond – and then something deeper – with his teacher, Mia (Sylvia Chang), who is old enough to be his mother. She’s from Hong Kong, and initially left for Toronto in 1996, and has now moved to Australia following her divorce.
It must be said that the third segment doesn’t quite live up to the first two segments for a couple of reasons. The first being that Jia seems slightly uncomfortable working in English, and the dialogue sounds more than a little stilted at times, particularly when spoken by Zijan Dong, who gives the weakest performance in the film. The other reason is that Tao has been the emotional anchor of the film – and she’s all but absent in the third part of the movie. There is brief sequence at the beginning of the second segment that also doesn’t focus on Tao (it focuses on Liangzi), but for the most part, the film has been about her – and when the film leaves her behind, it suffers a little bit. The presence of Sylvia Chang certainly helps – but even she isn’t as good as Tao Zhao. Yet, even if this segment isn’t quite as strong as the other two, it does fall completely in line thematically with what Jia is doing, making its flaws a little easier to take. It is not surprising that it is her the film returns to in its final moments 0 providing an absolutely perfect bookend to the movie.
Mountains May Depart isn’t quite the film A Touch of Sin was – that film had the advantage of being more stylized and violent, and also angry, pulling us along with more urgency. Mountains May Depart is a sadder film – a slow film, that sees what China is becoming, and isn’t hopeful for what is coming next. The film is less overt in its political commentary than his earlier, neo-realist films like Platform (2000), but his critique is no less pointed or on target, and more resigned (after all, the characters in Mountains May Depart were optimistic in 1999 – and there is at least some of that in Platform as well, as they didn’t know quite where things were head). Mountains May Depart is not a perfect film – but it is an excellent one – and further proof that Jia Zhangke is one of the best filmmakers in the world right now.