Launched at Cannes in May 2015, “Mountains May Depart” is an ambitious and more commercial project by Chinese director Jia Zhangke. An important and well-regarded member of the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese independent film-makers, Zhangke has consistently narrated with style and heart, friendship, love and family ties in post-Mao society. This movie is indeed a sum and an evolution of the themes that he has been exploring in his previous movies and unravels in a three-dimensional landscape of past, present and future.
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The tripartite narration comprises of three segments, set in 1999, 2014 and 2025. The first and longer part starts at the eve of the new Millennium in Fenyang (the director’s hometown) with a group of merry people dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ song Go West, a not-so-subtle allusion to the spirit of that precise moment. It’s the break from an uncomfortable past, the dawn of a new chapter for the people of China, a joyful, mindless run towards a simulacrum of Western freedom, offering a future of money, cars and mobile phones. At the lead of this happy dance is Tao (Zhao Tao) a young and enthusiastic woman with a love for life and friends. She and her two old pals Liang (Liang Jingdong) and Jingsheng (Zhang Yi) are inseparable and it is not a secret that both the young men are in love with her. A humble and gentle coal-miner the first one and a brassy loud new rich the second one, they are bound to fight over Tao and eventually, despite the great affection for both, Tao chooses Jingsheng and Liang is harshly forced out of the picture when Jingsheng buys the coal-mine and sacks the old friend. Soon after getting married, Tao and Jingsheng have a baby boy and in a bold move, as an omen of future luck and success, the father names him Dollar.
It’s 2014 in the second part and many things have changed. Tao and Jingsheng are separated and young Dollar lives with the father and his new wife in Shanghai. The ghosts of past choices are hunting Tao, now a wealthy yet melancholic woman still attached to her roots and consumed by the distance – physical and emotional – between her and her estranged son. When even her beloved father passes away and a terminally ill Liang comes back to Fenyang with his wife and child, a circle of deep desolation and sorrow closes on her.
The final and more criticized part of the narration is set in Australia in 2024. Jingsheng is a bitter and disillusioned aging man, despite his financial success, and Dollar (Don Zijan as the adult Dollar) suffers of a sort of diaspora malaise. He has left university and is adrift and in conflict with the father and his vision of life. Without roots and in great pain, he ends up falling for a maternal surrogate, Mia (Sylvia Chang) a Chinese woman his senior, and with her, the idea of returning to China starts to form. He still has a set of keys his mother gave him many years before, as a symbol of a home that is always open for him. And outside that same home, back in Fenyang, Tao in an elliptical move closes the film dancing again – this time alone – to Go West.
“Mountains May Depart” has been labelled as Jia Zhangke’s departure from the “auteurism” in favor of a more commercial style. Certainly this latest movie has its point of view solidly focused on the emotions of the characters and their declination in a melodrama paradigm of cause-effect, and this indeed makes it more emphatic and therefore more viable, but it’s not difficult to spot here the same seeds and themes of Zhangke’s previous works like “Platform”, “Still Life”, “24 Cities”. One more time, the director uses Fenyang as his observatory to monitor and capture the evolution of a country that is following a dream of economic prosperity and changing at impossible speed, with all the emotional casualties that come with this shift in values and the dangerous loss of reference points.
Each one of the three parts is shot in a different aspect ratio to visually differentiate the time frames and we can still find few of the surreal touches the director likes to plant in his movies and his very personal use of pop music. Long time Zhangke’s collaborator and wife, Zhao Tao is terrific in the role of Tao. She wonderfully grows older in front of our eyes without the aid of make-up tricks, turning from a happy-go-lucky young millennial, full of hopes for a bright future, to a mature woman, displaying every emotional scar on her face and eyes. She is almost absent in the third part and she is sorely missed, maybe the reason why this final episode feels the weakest of all, along with the fact that it is in English (always a tricky, dangerous choice). Sylvia Chang is also a very pleasant bonus in her short appearance as Mia.
Despite few imperfections and flaws, “Mountains May Depart” is another powerful portrait of modern China and the crumbling of the Cultural Revolution utopia but with eyes firmly set on the human beings and their struggle to keep up with history.