Jia Zhangke is a legend of 6th generation Chinese filmmakers. Having made a name for himself with naturally shot, gripping social realism films, Mountains May Depart marks a new career high, delivering some of the best work Jia has done in the majority of the film.
Mountains May Depart is set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, China and spans the course of 26 years, tracking three periods in its characters’ lives as they grow and experience tragedy and change. The film opens in 1999 on Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, also Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator) as she teaches a young dance troupe choreography to the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’. It’s a scene that encapsulates the character’s youthful energy, her fresh hopes and immensely long life ahead of her at the turn of the millennium. In her vivacity, Shen Tao is pursued by two men – coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) and aspiring businessman Zhang Jiansheng (Zhang Yi). Shen Tao falls for Zhang’s gifts and materialism, in turn leading to the fall of Liangzi, who moves away following a treacherous scheme by Zhang. Tao and Zhang have a baby together, who Zhang decides to name ‘Dollar’, much to Tao’s annoyance. Jia’s colours here are beautiful, straight out of a film he himself would have made in the 90s, and perfectly exemplifies the heady youth lost in the dawn of the new millennium, with rivalry escalating to the destruction of livelihood and a foreshadowing of the loss of happiness, even as China’s fortunes are on the rise.
Fast forward 15 years to 2014, and Tao and Zhang have gotten a divorce. Liangzi has gotten a family of his own, but has contracted a lung disease, and too poor to afford the treatment, approaches the lonesome Tao, whose son’s custody was won by Zhang. Tao’s wistful looks as she reunites with Liangzi are soft, incredibly in how much regret and pain are evident in her eyes. Zhao Tao’s performance is at its peak in this section, as she breaks down completely in learning about the death of her father, and as her estranged son is whisked back to her, the frustration and anger of no longer being mother to her own blood as she watches Dollar locked in nightly conversations on his iPad with Zhang’s new wife, incapable of doing anything as she accepts his fate of going to an international school and Shanghai. Tao’s performance here is at its peak, and one cannot help but empathize with her every move, her age catching up to her and though rich in money, is left nearly penniless in relationships. Perhaps most poignantly of all, Tao shares a genuine moment with Dollar as they listen to an old favourite song together via earphones, and in that brief instant, are connected.
The final part of the film is set in 2025, with Tao no longer the subject but her now grown up son Dollar (Dong Zijian), unhappily living in Melbourne with his rigid, aged father, and engaging in an affair with his older teacher (the indomitable Sylvia Chang). Although this is the weakest part of the triptych, where Jia seems out of his element directing in English and leading to some awkward sounding conversations, the segment remains beautifully shot, with genuine sparks of chemistry between Dong and Chang. Mountains May Depart eventually brings it all together again as Dollar returns to China to search for his long lost mother, and we’re privy to Tao as she ends off the film with a smile, full circle and finding her youth again dancing solo to the Pet Shop Boys once more.
Jia’s films are so effective precisely because they seem lifted directly out of real life; the emotions believable and the losses experienced by his characters devastatingly relatable. Rarely showy, but immensely powerful in its delivery and nostalgic in its portrayal of China, Mountains May Depart is a strong reflection on the movement of relationships and the inevitability of change, a microcosm of the nature of life’s twists, and a reminder that the promise of youth is everpresent in our hearts.
Mountains May Depart is in UK cinemas 15th December