Jia Zhangke’s flawed, but deeply compelling Mountains May Depart spans from the recent yet distant past to the near future, painting a quarter-century of changing fortunes and buried longing in strokes both graceful and eccentric, with shades of Charles Dickens and Mildred Pierce. Set primarily in Jia’s northern hometown, Fenyang, Mountains May Depart pictures China’s rapid changes as relationships, beginning with an allegorical love triangle (an electronics clerk, a coal miner, and a self-styled businessman) and ending with a pseudo-Oedipal affair between Chinese immigrants of different generations, one of whom has forgotten his native language. Sentimental, and plotted with the elegance of a silent film, Mountains is nearly hamstrung in its futuristic final section by one very bad performance and a whole lot of tin-eared English dialogue. And yet there’s no denying the poignancy of its themes, phrased and developed wordlessly, though props and gestures—a wedding invitation found covered in dust, spare sets of keys carried like memories, and so on.
Though Mountains May Depart is almost as episodic as the writer-director’s last feature—the superb, surprising A Touch Of Sin, which was basically four films united by a shared theme of violent frustration—the movie’s three sections, each set in a different year and shot in a different aspect ratio, trace a single arc. It starts in February of 1999, with scooter-riding, fresh-faced everywoman Tao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and muse, excellent) and the two male friends who’d rather be something more to her: working stiff Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) and show-off Zhang (Zhang Yi), who gives rides in his used red Volkswagen Jetta as though it were a brand new Ferrari. (Depreciated status symbols are a motif here; in the middle section, set in 2014, Fenyang’s once empty intersections are jammed with honking Volkswagen taxis.) These are the materialist “youth of today” of Jia’s career-defining third feature, Unknown Pleasures, except that now, they’re the youth of yesterday, seen nostalgically.
Jia is the film poet of China’s horizontal space, catching streets, post-industrial landscapes, and employee cafeterias in slow pans, and a filmmaker of broad conceptual theses. Besides creating clear breaks in the story, Mountains’ change-ups of style also alter the way the movie visualizes space—and, by extension, possibility. The first and longest section is tightly framed in boxy Academy ratio, with the camera forced to move quickly to get more than one character into the same shot, as though there were always something just around the corner of the screen; celebratory fireworks are always being set off, whether at an apartment block during the opening credits, or by Zhang, Liangzi, and Tao at a secluded riverside. The frame gets wider with each subsequent section, but all it reveals is empty space; by the final and shortest chapter, set in Australia in 2025, characters are often framed alone, against interiors as impersonal as high-end real estate listings.
As with almost all of Jia’s work (A Touch Of Sin being a notable exception), one can’t help but make all of this sound dry; Jia is a filmmaker who has always been up front about his interests in such academic favorites as globalization, industry, and class, and they figure prominently here. It’s important, then, to reiterate just how sensitive Mountains May Depart is, especially when it comes to the complex character of Tao, and how stubbornly strange it can be, from the unexpectedly touching use of the Pet Shop Boys’s “Go West” as a musical motif to Jia and cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai’s decision to shoot late ’90s nightclub and festival scenes on muddled, ghostly analog video. Since the arrival of the so-called sixth generation of Chinese film (which included Jia) in the early 1990s, independent-minded mainland filmmakers have made an art out of movies about the present that are really about what’s to come. Is any other country as obsessed with where it’s going? But Mountains May Depart, which is nominally about the future and is partly set in it, is really about the past’s left-behind places and roads not taken.
These are embodied by Liangzi’s eventual return to Fenyang after going away in search of work and by the relationship between Tao and her resentful son, given the very aspirational name of Dollar. As the years pass, Tao becomes a divorcee with her own Shell franchise and, finally, a primal imprint of what’s been left behind. There is something both twisted and touching to the fact that when the college-age Dollar (Dong Zijian, mind-bogglingly bad) “returns” to his all but forgotten mother, it isn’t literally, but through a sexual relationship with a tutor (Taiwanese great Sylvia Chang) who subconsciously reminds him of her. It’s the boldest move in a movie full of unconventional flourishes (e.g., a title card that doesn’t flash on screen until an hour in), even if it never completely works. But as easy as it is to nitpick Jia’s apparent inability to direct English dialogue, there’s no denying the effectiveness of the whole, which takes the standbys of melodrama—flashy suitors, tragic mothers, hometowns—and expands them into a complicated, bittersweet look at loneliness and disconnection in a world of flux.