Jia Zhangke | 2hr 6min
Having spent much of his career progressively inching further away from his neorealist roots, Mountains May Depart marks Jia Zhangke’s most significant withdrawal from that distinctive, authentic style, and is slightly more disappointing for it. The emotions are bigger and broader here, as he plays more into the conventional melodrama of his characters’ relationships than the quiet beats of disaffection, which he has always wielded such brilliant control over. Rather than sitting back at a distance where we can appreciate the sensitive ambiguity of their exchanges, Jia’s camera narrows further in on their faces than it ever has before, taking a certain edge off his otherwise remarkable use of traditional and modern architecture to define their connections and identities.
Still, this is not bad drama by any means, and it isn’t like he is abandoning all visual style entirely. Jia finds the time now and again to return to a long shot of a beautiful, towering pagoda, rising up in the background behind the characters, reminding us of the history that continues to hang over their lives. And when it comes to narrative structure, the framing of Mountains May Depart across three separate time periods may not carry the heavy, epic weight of his earlier film, Platform, but it at least efficiently illustrates the accelerating speed with which Chinese culture is evolving.
On the eve of the new millennium in 1999, we meet Tao, a young shopkeeper caught in a love-triangle that sees her wind up with her more attractive but arrogant suitor. Later, she gives birth to a baby boy, Daole, and divorces her husband. In 2014, she reaches out to her estranged 7-year-old son, and even at this early point in his life she poignantly recognises the cultural distance between their generations. In the final act, set in 2026, we begin to follow Daole as a young man who has moved to Australia and adopted the moniker “Dollar”, effectively cementing his identity within a westernised culture. The only links back to his heritage are through his troubled relationship with his father, who he doesn’t even share a common language with, and his Chinese language teacher. The promise of globalisation to bring the people together is exposed as a lie, as this small family which once held so much hope for the future has been fractured in every sense. Dollar has not seen his mother since he was a childhood, but Jia sparks some hope for their relationship in the final moments, as the young immigrant finally considers reconnecting with her.
As much as this final act works to tie off Jia’s point about China’s modernist progress isolating its own citizens, it is also here where he loses sight of the film’s formal strength. With Tao almost completely dropping out of the narrative, and a jarringly inauthentic vision of a futuristic society, the last forty minutes of the film feels oddly out of place with the rest of the film.
That is, until the largely silent epilogue, when Jia returns to a lonely, middle-aged Tao, back in China. We watch as she walks outside her home into the thick snow laying over the village, pauses, and begins to dance. As suggested by the musical bookends of The Pet Shop Boys’ song “Go West”, the westernised culture that her nation has adopted still isn’t going anywhere. But at the same time, neither is that gorgeous, monumental pagoda, rising up out of the landscape like a shrine to China’s past.
Mountains May Depart is not currently available to stream in Australia.