It’s unlikely that Jia Zhangke will ever make a totally straight genre movie, but he has nonetheless been drawn to populist, even pulpy, narratives of late as a means of sketching his social commentaries. Jia’s incendiary crime anthology A Touch of Sin (2013) demonstrated that his measured pacing and meticulously structured long takes are as suitable for graphic tales of revenge and robbery as they are for ruminations on the plight of migrant workers or amateur theatre troupes, and his latest work continues this quasi-mainstream experiment with his first full-blown emotional epic. A decades-spanning saga that starts in the past (1999) and concludes in the future (2025), Mountains May Depart finds Jia at his most conceptually ambitious. Unlike the tightly-wound A Touch of Sin, however, the critique fails to come together in a satisfying manner despite yielding a surfeit of ideas.
Structured in three sections that illustrate the rapid pace of China’s globalization (and use a different aspect ratio as the image expands from square Academy to glorious widescreen) the film begins in Fenyang with Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) and her friends celebrating the dawn of a new era by dancing and singing along to the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Go West”. Tao has two suitors, hard-working coal miner Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and flash enterpriser Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). Neither man represents an ideal choice – Liangzi is shy and has limited prospects while the more assertive Jinsheng has a short temper. She chooses the wealthier option with a dejected Jinsheng leaving town. Although it features the film’s most heated melodrama – Jia and regular cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai’s compositions are more mobile than usual here but always keep Tao fixed in the middle of the love triangle – 1999 plays as a prologue of sorts as the title card does not appear until around 50 minutes in at the start of the 2014 section.
By this point, Tao is divorced from Jinsheng and dealing with the fact that her son Dollar (so-named because of his father’s unserved love of capitalism) while Liangzi returns to Fenyang with a devoted wife and young child but is suffering from a severe case of black lung as a result of his hazardous profession. However, their reunion is not the focus of this second act as the tension of the 1999 love triangle has long petered out with the men having gone their separate ways. Instead, Jia turns his attention to the bond between her and Dollar, which has been weakened through distance – Dollar has not only been studying at an elite international school in Shanghai but also spending time with his father overseas. When family tragedy strikes, Tao takes care of the matter with Dollar in tow, insisting on taking the slow train to traverse the country so that she can spend more time with her son. The realization that she is losing Dollar to another culture hits her when he initially addresses her as “mommy” rather than “ma” but really sets in while flicking through his iPad photo album that shows him being spoiled by Jinsheng’s wealth.
Until this juncture, Mountains May Depart holds the attention with its emphatic performances and knowledge of how the optimism of 1999 will dissipate into frustration with a modern mainland China society largely defined by its wealth gap. Jia’s work always thrives on its sense of place, which is further enhanced here by his integration of raw footage of his hometown shot in the years between 1999 and 2014, and his recreation of Fenyang on the cusp of the economic boom. With the epic sweep evoked by the time jump, Jia seems to be aiming for a summative work on the human cost of China’s globalization, but the problematic third section heads into more speculative territory with decidedly mixed results.
2025 finds Dollar (Dong Zijian) living in Australia where he attends college but seems to have little interest in his education. His curiosity is piqued, however, by a new teacher, the Hong Kong born Mia (Sylvia Chang), who is also a transplant having moved from Toronto following her divorce. An awkwardly played May-December relationship develops that is so obvious it is almost unexpected, with Dollar suddenly yearning for his mother, with whom he has lost contact. Jia marks the rapid passing of time through life-enhancing technology (Jinsheng’s Volkswagen sedan in 1999; matching iPhones as wedding gifts in 2014; and glass-like tablets in 2025) so it’s hard to suspend disbelief at the contrivance of a mother and son losing touch completely in the age of social media, Skype, and Face Time. This means that any emotional clout comes from tapping into universal feelings about the transformative circumstances of migration, estrangement, and dislocation rather than the actual screen drama. The recurrence of popular music (a 1990s Cantonese song sung by Sally Yeh, a closing reprise of “Go West” that could be taken as bittersweet or deeply ironic) feels unusually manipulative, as if Jia is forcing an emotional response to the plight of an irrevocably fractured family that has crucially made its own choices.
Throughout these sections, Jia picks up but swiftly drops a number of threads that would make for fascinating features under his precise direction (the importance of coal to China’s rise; wealthy businessmen fleeing overseas after hearing corruption clampdown rumors; the loss of identity through the erosion of language). Jinsheng serves as a commentary on China’s shift to a new value system: arrogant in 1999 as he tries to possess Tao like a material object; an absent presence in 2014 while expanding his empire; and a borderline alcoholic wreck in 2025, stumbling around a luxurious Australian community that he can never fully assimilate to, a state compounded by the surrounding environment being so gorgeous that it is as unreal as the theme park in The World (2004). By this point, Jinsheng’s communication with Dollar has broken down not just through generational difference but also because of language barrier – Jingsheng has not bothered learning English despite choosing a life in exile while his son has forgotten how to speak Mandarin.
It’s always hard to witness the reach of a remarkable filmmaker exceeding his grasp, especially when one can almost feel the strain of the effort being made. At times, Jia’s eighth feature is as infuriating as it is involving, almost prompting the viewer to shout at the screen in the hope that the director will exert stricter control and right its wayward course. Mountains May Depart certainly has its melancholic rewards, not least of which is Tao’s marvelously dignified performance, but this is the first Jia film where the whole is somehow less than the sum of its thought provoking parts.