After the rather rich but violent A Touch of Sin, China’s Jia Zhangke returns with something more intimate though no less critical of his country’s social fabric and the ideals of capitalism. Mountains May Depart follows a woman’s life as a young teacher at the start of the new millennium and into the future of 2025 as a lonely divorcée. Tao is exquisitely played Zhao Tao, Jia’s longtime collaborator and wife (She won the Knight Competition Best Performance award at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, where the film had its Florida premiere).
His eighth feature film is a rich experience, proving Jai is still one of China’s great living filmmakers. He uses varying framing for the different eras, starting with in the past with the tight 1.33:1 frame, moving to 1.85:1 for the current era, and then stretching to 2.35 for the future. It’s similar to what Wes Anderson did with Grand Budapest Hotel (Film Review: ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ may be cartoonish, but it’s also one of Wes Anderson’s most human films). The film’s color palette also varies with time, from bright and primary for the past to grim and gray for the current time focused on Tao’s mourning of her father to cool and steely in the 2025 section. The camera movements by DP Yu Lik-wai, also a longtime Zhangke collaborator, are consistently gorgeous. One could even call them balletic in their grace of following action.
The film opens in 1999, presenting Tao as a young, vibrant woman torn between two lovers. Jia, who also wrote the screenplay, spends an hour during this “prologue” exploring Tao’s lighthearted conflict for her feelings between genteel coal-miner Liang (Liang Jing Dong) and boisterous businessman Zhang (Zhang Yi). As the longest section, it’s the film’s most pleasant, essential to imprinting the humanized souls of these characters that come to fade in the later sections.
The second part of the film presents a more mature, well-off Tao confronting her limits as a divorced mother in mourning for the loss of her father. Her marriage with Zhang has failed except to produce a son named Dollar (Rong Zishan), a name paying tribute to Zhang’s affection for capitalism, which she fought against. This could be the film’s grimmest moment, revealing a side of Tao who desperately and clumsily pushes Dollar to join her in her mourning, save for a tender if brief moment they share making dumplings.
Finally, comes the film’s most challenging section: the future, which mostly covers a teenage Dollar (Dong Zijian) who has moved to Melbourne, Australia with his father, who has become a bitter, gun-collecting hermit. Dollar finds a kind of solace in a surrogate mother, his Chinese school teacher (Sylvia Chang). Even though this part of the film is mostly in English, making it easier for English-speakers to follow, there’s something more heavy-handed in the metaphors, revealing Jia’s limits in working outside of his native language. Who knows? It could also work by design, revealing the future as a cold, clumsy era where misplaced hope has only led to disenchantment.
Tao is also hardly in this final part of the movie. Again, this could be seen as a fault, but it also speaks to the tragedy of a life unfulfilled. Tao is but an older, disillusioned woman struggling to embrace her bliss in her twilight years whose only escape may be nostalgia. Jia rides the wave of time through love and loss to a poetically inevitable conclusion that also takes Tao full circle, charmingly framed by of all things, The Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 single “Go West.” A master of the quotidian, Jia’s quality hardly ever falters. Intimate and more expressive than you might expect, Mountains May Depart is truly another towering accomplishment by this filmmaker.
Mountains May Depart runs 131 minutes, is in Chinese, Cantonese, Mandarin and English with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater in Miami, the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Lake Worth Playhouse. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through May, visit this link and jump through the “playdates” button. This is an extended version of a review first published in the Miami New Times ahead of the film’s Florida premiere at the Miami International Film Festival. All images in this post were provided by Kino Lorber.