by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This review contains spoilers.
From the close-knit and intimate struggles of the past to the open and uncertain questions of the future, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is a lofty meditation on a small number of people as much as it is an examination of a country’s future in the world. Comprised of three segments – one set in 1999, the next in 2014, and the last in 2025, the film is a sprawling philosophical expedition, forcing us to ponder how the passage of time alters us and our surroundings. Characters live in a calm normality, but see it taken away. Distance and separation fades the past. The script’s seemingly free-form structure leads into more complicated emotions. We feel its flowing tide, moving in and out as various familiarities are progressively swept out to sea.
Each act tells a chapter in the life of Tao (Zhao Tao), a woman who lives in the industrial mining town of Fenyang, in northern China. In 1999, she is young, and thoroughly optimistic. She is on the precipice of making an important decision – to marry and settle down. Her soon-to-be-husband Zhang (Zhang Yi) is an aspiring businessman, desiring to make use of the country’s expanding economy. He buys one of the town’s coal mines, and in the process, establishes dominance over a miner named Liang (Liang Jingdong), who Tao had previously dated, and so now it is just Zhang and Tao. They have a son, who is named, amazingly enough, Dollar.
By 2014, the couple has divorced. She does not see her ex-husband or her son very much – they have moved away, and Dollar is enrolled an international school, destined to study business. Tao and Dollar reunite upon the occasion of a relative’s funeral. The meeting of mother and son proves estranged, awkward, and uncomfortable. Eleven more years pass, and the film pulls away from China, instead focusing on Dollar (Dong Zijian), now a college student in Australia, who no longer remembers Mandarin or anything about his mother. He begins to question the path his life is taking. Much to the ire of his father, he wants to drop out of school and pursue his own passions. And upon developing an odd romance with one of his professors (Sylvia Chang), Dollar slowly begins to ponder returning to his home country and reconciling what has been lost.
Mountains May Depart is an enthralling wonderwork. Jia gracefully guides the tenants of his script, delicately crafting a comprehensive thesis on the ideas of the human experience, our connections with ever-impending mortality and our aversion to the void of the unknown. This is all framed against a grander backdrop, as the director builds on his previous work’s theorizing on the Chinese transition to capitalism and the effects it has on a society born from the scraps of control and command. While this idea does present itself in some awkward, rammed-in symbolism – such as Tao’s son literally being called Dollar – the movie is otherwise able to find a keen meeting point between the small, interpersonal quarters of its character drama and the more hypothetical realms of its political and economic questions.
When we are initially introduced to Tao, she leads a small dance troupe, and in the first scene of the film, we see them practicing a routine to The Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Go West”, a bouncy Eurodisco piece with a famously surreal music video that alludes, however incidentally, to the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism. It is not an accident that Jia chooses this as the first thing we hear at the start of Mountains May Depart’s 126 minutes. The changes in the life of Tao and her loved ones are intrinsically related to China’s rapidly altering place in the world’s economy. Toward the end of the film, the song reappears and takes on the form of a hard emotional coda, the lyrics newly summarizing the far-ranging path that has been walked.
This progression is reflected in the cinematography of Mountains May Depart. The hazy, colorful simplicity of the scenes of the 1990s, rooted in traditionalism and nostalgic naivety, soon give away to the 2020s. By then, Fenyang is a city fully enveloped in a grey, cold, and post-industrial world. Australia is a nation of touch screens and boxy glass architecture. Each jump in time is represented by a new aspect ratio, starting in a nearly square 4:3 and evolving to a vast 2.35:1 scope. Jia judges these things as neither bad nor good, but rather uses it as a visualization of the film’s focal point: Our future is coming, and we must deal with it in our own ways. It will not look like the past, but the old ideals will remain the recesses of our minds. We mustn’t ignore them, nor should we become overly lost in them.
There are times when Mountains May Depart loses its way. Most notably, there’s a third act downturn: when the film moves from Mandarin dialogue to English, Jia is less able to control his actors and the screenplay he has written. It’s then when conversations come off as rather stilted. Yet this flaw is unable to undo what has been achieved otherwise. This is a great movie which dares to explore questions that many would rather not think about. In everything, despite the wider and wider perspective through which Jia explores his world, there is Tao. She is one woman, who lives her life to the best of her ability, making mistakes as we all do. Her story is specifically fleshed out, yet undeniably used as a universal stand-in for us all. The world she inhabits may not be the same one she inhabited twenty years ago, and she may have drifted apart from the people she loved. But, we are reminded, she still lives on. She fills her world with hope. And she would never change that.