The effect of contemporary China’s accelerated economic development and social evolution on identity, tradition and human connection has always been the great defining theme of Jia Zhang-ke‘s films. But his exploration of change, loss and regret has never felt more personal than in Mountains May Depart, a story that begins with a romantic triangle in 1999 in the director’s northern hometown of Fenyang, picks up in 2014 and then jumps forward to Australia in 2025. While that awkward final section shows Jia’s lack of assurance working in English, the misstep is instantly erased in a beautiful concluding sequence that reaffirms the film’s aching depth of feeling and extraordinary sense of place.
Jia’s last feature, A Touch of Sin, showed him moving away from the poetic maxi-minimalist mosaic of films like Platform and The World, or the surreal docudrama of Still Life, to embrace violent genre elements and harder-edge narrative in four interconnected stories pulled from headlines in modern China. Despite its sprawling arc, his new film is perhaps his most linear and accessible work to date. It also might be his most intimate, anchored by a gorgeous performance of uncommon grace by the director’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao.
The other invaluable collaborator here is Jia’s longtime cinematographer Yu Lik Wai, whose compositional skills are both impeccable and unfussy. Incorporating DV footage shot in the 1990s, the visuals echo the drama’s passage of time in subtle ways, employing three different aspect ratios to distinguish the shifts: Academy 1:33 for 1999, standard 1:85 for 2014, and sleek widescreen for the future. The startling crispness and bold use of color throughout are a constant pleasure.
The playful opening shows Zhao as young schoolteacher Tao, leading an exuberant formation dance to the Pet Shop Boys’ synth-pop cover of the Village People disco chestnut “Go West.” From that kitschy intro, Jia then slyly moves east, cutting from New Year’s fireworks to Chinese dragons branching off from a parade down a side street, where they pass Tao returning home on her moped. That shuffling of Western and contemporary Chinese culture with ceremonial pageantry and traditional street scenes becomes a motif used with eloquence and economy.
Tao’s childhood friend Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), who works at the local coal mine, has clearly been in love with her forever. But when Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) becomes the owner of the mine and starts making his move, the dynamic suddenly changes — even if cheerful, impetuous Tao does her best to ignore the friction between the two guys. With his flashy new car and wads of money, Jinsheng is a classic nouveau riche boor, but it’s no surprise that he eventually wins out over Liangzi’s stalwart devotion.
Though this film is not nearly so overt in its commentary on the Chinese wealth divide as A Touch of Sin, the tension between Liangzi and Jinsheng underscores the gap between elite privilege and the marginalized underclass that has been represented in much of Jia’s work.
The rearrangement of the triangle is conveyed in striking visual shorthand, starting with a stunning shot in which the three of them stand apart on the banks of the Yellow River while Liangzi sets off fireworks as ice floes drift by. This is echoed a little later when Jinsheng, unable to obtain a gun, starts making silly noises about eliminating his competition with dynamite, before conceding his folly and setting off the explosion at the same spot in the river. More expressive still is a dialogue-free scene in which Tao is shown physically making her choice on a dance floor, while Liangzi accepts his defeat, accompanied by pounding techno music.
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Jia’s masterful command of melodrama, aided by Yoshihiro Hanno‘s tender score, continues as Tao delivers a wedding invitation to Liangzi and he bitterly informs her he’s leaving town for good. This farewell scene is one of the film’s most wrenching, with Tao’s face for the first time revealing the full extent of her pain; she appears already aware that she’s making the wrong choice. Zhao’s emotional transparency is matched by the soulful pride of Liang’s sensitive characterization, which deepens further into melancholy in the central section.
In another sign that Jia invents his own rules, the leap ahead to 2014 is marked by the main title credit, a full 50 minutes into the film. That shift reveals the sad irony that the self-exiled Liangzi, who now has a wife and baby, ended up working in a coal mine in another province. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, he returns with his family to die in Fenyang, where the now-divorced Tao lives alone. Their brief reunion, instigated by Liangzi’s wife, is another quietly shattering moment, played with affecting restraint.
The middle chapter also details how Tao’s son, named Dollar by his unapologetic capitalist dad, is living in luxury and attending the international school in Shanghai, where Jinsheng is a hotshot investor. The boy returns at age 7 for his grandfather’s funeral, and Tao learns that her ex-husband, now going by the name Peter, plans to move them to Australia.
The communication divide with her son, and the acknowledgement that the boy’s future will be brighter away from Fenyang, brings searing poignancy to this thread. While Tao has clearly been left comfortable in the divorce settlement, she concedes that she can be of no use to Dollar, and the weight of that statement seems to age Zhao’s face as we watch.
The third section, set in 2025, is more uneven. Jia has no interest in sci-fi speculation about the world a decade from now, and its depiction is even more subdued than in, say, Spike Jonze‘s Her. It’s limited largely to a nifty Google translation interface on the tablet used by the 18-year-old Dollar (Dong Zijian) to communicate with his unassimilated father.
There’s pathos in Dollar’s complete dislocation from his roots, and his seeming indifference to Chinese culture lessons. But his teacher, Mia (Sylvia Chang), becomes a heavy-handed literal manifestation of his absent mother, about whom he remembers nothing beyond her name. Though Jia makes touching use here of a 1990s Cantonese pop song heard in all three sections, the deja vu sensation it provokes in Dollar feels too on-the-nose, as does the unraveling of Jinsheng/Peter into a spiritually bankrupt gun nut. (Zhang’s performance starts out amusing but hits more obvious notes as the drama progresses.)
Cinematographer Yu reaps benefits from the expansive Australian landscapes, both inland and along the Great Ocean Road at Port Campbell. But improbable plotting derails the section, along with stilted dialogue and stiff acting. However, a coda back in China that returns us to Tao, now in her fifties, reconnects to the film’s opening with a generosity of spirit that’s both delicate and satisfying. It’s a moment that might have been cute or even corny in less skilled hands. But here, it binds the film together, overriding its flaws to create a full-bodied emotional experience.
Production companies: Office Kitano, MK Productions, Xstream Pictures, Shanghai Film Group Corpporation, Runjin Investment
Cast: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang, Han Sanming
Director-screenwriter: Jia Zhang-ke
Producers: Shozo Ichiyama
Executive producers: Ren Zhonglun, Jia Zhang-keNathaniel & Elisha Karmitz, Liu Shiyu
Director of photography: Yu Lik Wai
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Costume designer: Li Hua
Music: Yoshihiro Hanno
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
No rating, 131 minutes.