Mountains May Depart
(Jia Zhang-ke, 2015)
Roughly 50 minutes into Mountains May Depart, director Jia Zhang-ke introduces the film’s title card. But while this ushers what many will delineate as the “start” of the film, it truly signals an end. Divided into three narratives set in 1999, 2014, and 2025, Mountains May Depart explores many of Jia’s chief concerns on the capitalistic rot that has subsumed mainland China. Not quite as sprawling as Jia’s previous film, A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart primarily fixates itself on Tao (Zhao Tao), a dance instructor and shopkeeper in Fenyang. The 1999 portion, shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, sees Tao fend off advances from two potential suitors – the opulent investor Zhang (Zhang Yi) and a working class coal-miner named Liangzi (Liang Jing-dong). This sort of dichotomy could be found in just about any romantic comedy, but Jia treats these two men as metaphorical of a significant socioeconomic shift – Tao’s eventual choice between the two men’s contrasting economic ideologies serves to highlight China’s own development from its agrarian roots to a global superpower. And as this narrative proceeds, capped off with the birth of a child, the magnitude of this decision echoes through the expanses the frame, where Jia shifts from 1999 to 2014, from 4:3 to 1.85:1.
The narrative realigns its perspective, peering into the cancer-afflicted plights of Liangzi, only to once-again pivot back to Tao. Jia’s clever deconstruction of contemporary China’s marginalization of the working class is given hefty emotional weight, realized primarily through Zhao Tao’s demanding and searing performance. She shoulders a heavy burden, assuming the responsibility of translating emotions as both macro and micro events. She attends the funeral for a loved one with her child by her side. We see a mourning woman explicate the immediate emotional trauma of the loss, while also acknowledging broader generational concerns – in the death of an elder, her son is at a loss of how to behave at such a ceremony.
Yet the film’s final arc, shifting from 2014 to 2025, from Fenyang to Melbourne, from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1, and spoken from Mandarin to English, lacks much of the narrative subtleties that made its earlier portion so palpable. It’s an audacious gambit that Jia makes and one that I’m not entirely convincing of (a Melbourne helicopter ride sequence prompted a series of gasps, “no ways!” and walk-out with equal fervor from my audience). Yet the arc is vital in theory, perhaps not so much in execution, in that it broadens the scope of Jia’s cultural deconstruction, whereby China’s heritage is examined through a globalized lens. A final sequence, one that mirrors the opening dance sequence (set to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”), capitulates that while the frozen tundra of China’s culture may change through the passage of time, particular lineages can weather the most paroxysmal of tectonic shifts.