Film Review: Mountains May Depart

The latest and most intensely personal movie by the celebrated Chinese director Jia Zhangke won the top prize at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight.
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Jia Zhangke’s latest film, Mountains May Depart, is in three segments, each one filmed in a different aspect ratio, and distinguished by stylistic decisions that reveal the Chinese filmmaker’s mastery of the medium. The stories all derive from three characters who have been friends since childhood: Tao (Zhao Tao), a dance teacher; Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a coal miner who dreams of a life with Tao at his side; and Zhang (Zhang Yi), a budding entrepreneur who becomes Liangzi’s rival for Tao’s affection. The movie begins in 1999 in the filmmaker’s hometown of Fenyang, when the characters are in their 20s. It then moves to the present, and finally to 2025 in Australia—“progressing” to increasingly Western sensibilities. 

Zhangke’s work has long been art-house fare, but Mountains May Depart has broader appeal, in part because it is an intensely personal film. It begins with a rousing dance number led by Tao to Pet Shop Boys’ version of the song “Go West.” The title, inspired by a traditional American aphorism, is contrasted in the next scenes to the appearance of several costumed figures, including dragons and mythical warriors who pass Tao on their way to the New Year’s parade. While Tao may dance to a Western song, the improvised and poetic one she sings at the festivities is a much-anticipated part of Fenyang’s celebration of the holiday.

If in these opening scenes (in the classic 1:33 aspect ratio) Zhangke’s images are an uneasy mix of the traditional and the modern, the characters, too, appear on the verge of transition. It is not long before Zhang makes clear his intentions toward Tao, and he and Liangzi come to blows, severing their childhood ties. Tao’s aging father, who has been consulting a matchmaker, is nevertheless disappointed when his daughter names the man she has been dating. In a brief, sublime shot of the father leaning against the wall of a train on which he and Tao are passengers, his head bowed, Zhangke foreshadows Tao’s fate, and the trajectory of his bittersweet tale.

During a 2015 New York Film Festival press conference for Mountains May Depart, Zhangke spoke about longing, a traditional subject of Chinese poetry and literature. The movie is suffused with that emotion. In fact, its setting is a personal expression of longing: The filmmaker, who turns 46 this year, lives in Beijing, yet this film, as well as his previous one, Touch of Sin (2013), were shot in Fenyang, a city in Shanxi, a state to the south of the capital. Zhangke’s hometown was also the setting for Xiao Wu (The Pickpocket, 1999), his feature film debut. Unknown Pleasures (2002), his breakout movie, was set in another city in Shanxi, and in Still Life (2006) the protagonist is a miner from that province.

Not unlike Zhangke, the male characters in Mountains May Depart slip away from Fenyang. Liangzi travels to mines in other regions, and Zhang to the West, where his wealth buys freedom. Tao, whose name means “the way,” the foundation of a philosophy that pervades Chinese culture and cosmology, remains in Fenyang. (The Tao’s basic teaching is “non-action,” or taking no unnatural action.) While Zhang ignores “the way,” Liangzi does not. When he falls ill, in the second segment of the movie, he returns home with his wife and child, and Tao is there to help them. Her longing is palpable, although it is not for the life she might have shared with Liangzi.

After her marriage to Zhang in the first part of the film (shot from Tao’s point-of-view), Tao gives birth to a son. Zhang names him “Dollar,” condemning him to his own preoccupation with the West and, later, to an estrangement from his mother and his homeland. That leads Dollar to his own sense of longing in the third segment of the movie, set in Australia, where he and his father live. This segment is shot from Dollar’s point-of-view, and in a contemporary widescreen format.

Music plays an important role in all of Zhangke’s films, and in Mountains May Depart it is often an expression of the memories the characters share—and of their yearning for something that is ephemeral. For instance, Tao first hears a popular Cantonese song, “Take Care,” just before she decides to marry Zhang. (In fact, he buys her Sally Weh’s rendition of it.) In the second half of the film (shot in the more modern aspect ratio of 1.85), Tao plays it for Dollar, when he is a seven-year-old schoolboy and leaving Fenyang to live with his father in Shanghai. She and Zhang are separated, and she makes the difficult decision to give up her son so that he might get a better education in that Westernized city. Many years later, Dollar’s memory will be stirred by the song, which harkens back to a country he barely remembers.

There is a strong sense of place in Zhangke’s work, often illustrated through recurring visual motifs suggestive of China, and perhaps of Shanxi. Tourists may fly when they traverse the vast landscapes of China, but the natives take riverboats and trains; interestingly, the trains that connect the country signal different forms of separation in Mountains May Depart. China’s endangered tiger appears in this movie and in the filmmaker’s other work, as a symbol of a bountiful past that has been lost. The Yellow River recurs as well, symbolizing the birth of Chinese civilization, yet also what rivers always suggest, the eternal flow of life.

In A Touch of Sin, Zhangke honors the martial-arts heroes of ancient Chinese tradition, and in Mountains May Depart, a figure from the New Year’s parade, in traditional dress and carrying a saber, reappears like an avatar in the other two segments. He is a figure of longing, but also of something that is essentially Chinese, that remains in the hearts of Zhangke’s characters, although not in the vitiated Zhang.

Mountains May Depart is a parable of modern China where in the final segment the aging Tao is the fleeting, cardinal grace upon which hinges the survival of a mythical country. Her American counterpart would be Sandy (Donna Reed) in John Ford’s World War II drama They Were Expendable; she is the nurse whose delicate charm at an officer’s dinner party represents another imagined utopia. In these female characters resides the survival of the storied past that unites a nation, yet they “live” only in the recounting of heroic stories.

In the sublime closing sequence of Mountains May Depart, Tao makes “long dumplings” like she once did for her seven-year-old son. Her dog is at her side, the same breed she has had since she was a bride; the retriever wears a sweater refashioned for him from the one Tao wore as a young woman. It is the New Year, snow is falling, and Tao is remembering herself as she was then—yet she seems at peace with the woman she is now. If there is a lesson in that, the idea that in the uniting of opposites, youth and aging, it is possible to see the broad span of nature and of “the way,” Zhangke’s final image also suggests a contemplation of his own mortality and that of his wife, the talented actress whose first name is also Tao.

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