Mountains May Depart is a winding odyssey that navigates the several generations in Chinese experience at the turn of the century. Opening in 1999, on the eve of the century, Jia Zhangke’s latest film is concerned with the sudden and enormous impact the role of capitalism and economic growth in China can have on its social spheres. This is all portrayed through the film’s unofficial guide and navigator, Shen Tao, where her experiences, loves, and family bonds (and lack thereof) constantly serve to push and redefine the film. As she’s introduced to the audience performing “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, there’s a sort of imminent change in the air – as the song serves as a thematic tool throughout to exemplify the rising tide of globalisation and its abject effect on the lives Jia portrays.
The film is intricate and extensive in what it aims to cover, although it’s clear what segments in the piece are the stronger ones. Initially shot in Fenyang – Jia’s hometown and cinematic stomping ground – Mountains May Depart’s opening segments show Shen Tao on the precipice between two different ideas of China, as she finds herself caught in the middle of the attempts of two men trying to win her heart. The first of the two is Liangzi, a humble and introverted worker who is well-liked in the community, and deeply committed to the morals and anti-capitalist ideals of the working class. The other man, Zhang, is the embodiment of the new age of capitalism; he drives a shiny car, and… perhaps more tellingly, buys the mine that Liangzi is employed at. Jia makes it abundantly clear that Shen Tao’s true affection lies with Liangzi early on in the film; but he also establishes a caveat to this fact: in this new China, this isn’t a possibility. The first segment, which rounds up with Shen Tao and Zhang marrying, having a child which Zhang insists on naming “Dollar”, and Liangzi leaving to work in Henan, Mongolia. It’s a stunning opening segment that shows the director at home both visually and literally filming in Fenyang. The criticisms of class divides and capitalism in rural China are pertinent and expressed with the visual poetry the director is known for; navigating the fine line between social criticism and astounding visual narratives.
We’re introduced to Shen Tao after she’s divorced Zhang, maintaining a portion of his wealth in the process. Liangzi has developed cancer and returns to Fenyang to ask for help to get chemotherapy. He’s married at this stage and has a child, but maintains his often hilarious ‘tough guy’ demeanour. In the film’s most memorable line, Shen Tao joyfully remarks, “Your baby’s so cute,” before the demure Liangzi replies, “He’s alright.” Jia’s biggest failing in Mountains May Depart is perhaps how he allows Liangzi to completely drift out of the plot from this point on. The film chooses to centre in on Shen Tao’s slow and isolated life in Fenyang and Dollar’s life in between cultures in Melbourne, Australia. Mountains May Depart examines the idea of capitalism and growth as a catalyst for astounding changes and shifts in the short period of a lifetime, and Liangzi’s storyline’s lack of a conclusion reflects this. The poor are dwarfed into insignificance and thrown to the wayside in Jia’s film, in a way that emphasises the growing divides that are played out on screen. That said, with Liangzi serving as such a captivating figure in the opening scenes, it’s hard to imagine Mountains May Depart being anything other than stronger if the director allowed his story to play out.
The final stage of the film, set in 2025, is where Jia’s ambition is present, with middling results. Primarily concerned with Chinese migration, Jia rounds out his epic with a story of dislocation, anger and misdirected passions – all played out with the lasting impacts of the economic boom at the centre of the complications. Dollar is living with his father, and their relationship is marred with resentment and a language gap, all under the growing influence of technology. He hasn’t seen Shen Tao in over a decade and has no imperative to follow any particular career with his comfortable wealth. There’s a poorly pursued romance narrative, and a lot of sentimental attempts from Jia to try and tie this section in with the previous two; with the biggest problem emerging in the premise of this attempt being made in the first place. The end of Mountains May Depart is about disconnection, alienation and cultural detachment. Jia’s efforts to create parallels in such a landscape create a certain dissonance, which, while far from ruining the film, bring it down a few steps from the brilliance present in the opening.
The film relishes in its depth of frame with Yu Lik-wai letting his close-up shots linger before swiftly shifting them to longer shots, with stunning backgrounds often revealed in the process. Throughout, the delicacy of Lik-wai’s shots brings the film back from cliche and throws it towards sincerity. Mountains May Depart is prone to sentimentalism in its plot, however, Lik-wai’s cinematography poses a certain harshness and vastness to its composition and depth, in a way that amplifies and assists Jia’s directorial style. Jia Zhangke is ultimately a product of Fenyang, where his strongest films have been set. In Mountains May Depart, Jia asserts the intricacies and importance of places and familiarities in the stark contrasts between the astounding scenes shot in his own realm and the middling ending in a foreign world both the director and his characters share a certain disconnection from.