Despite my criticism of the third act, the risks Zhangke takes are admirable. They’re decisions made by a courageous filmmaker.
Master filmmaker Jia Zhangjke’s newest feature Mountains May Depart is a film of threes: the influence of three generations, three aspect ratios, and three acts—all of which span over the course of three different years. The film opens at the turn of the millennium in Zhangjke’s hometown of Fenyang. (It’s probably worth noting that the turn of the millennium has some personal significance for Zhangjke as well. This is when his career as a feature filmmaker started.)
An allegorical love triangle between twentysomethings is the core narrative of the first act. Desired by a handsome miner (Liang Jin Dong) and a promising young entrepreneur (Liang Jin Dong) is Tao (Zhao Tao who is both Zhangjke’s wife and frequent star), a young woman with a glowing smile and passion for music. Zhao Tao was a dancer before she became an actress and it’s obvious; even her smallest moments carry such a heavy emotional weight.
Even if this was the silent era, it would be natural for Zhao Tao to become a big star. In the film, young Tao loves to dance to “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, which is just one of many clever music choices by Zhangjke. It’s not only true to the ‘90s disco-club scene in China, but it flirts with the major themes of Mountains May Depart like the influence of western culture on contemporary China, what it means to be free, and change through the passage of time.
By the end of the first act, Tao has chosen the entrepreneur Zhang—it’s not for his money though; she seems to be too pure of a soul to be swayed by fortunes. Perhaps it’s the prospect of change and a bigger future that attracts her to him. After all, the first segment is in the very tight Academy ratio. The new couple takes their wedding photos in front of the Sydney Opera House, and they soon have a son named Dollar. The second act moves us to the year 2014 where Dollar is now a schoolboy living with his capitalist father and stepmother. The frame is wider here, but its vastness leaves one feeling alone more than anything else. The now-divorced Tao struggles to maintain a connection to her son. Young Dollar visits Tao when her father dies. Soon after the funeral she learns Dollar and his father, who now goes by Peter, are moving to Australia
The film’s third act takes place 11 years after the middle section. This third act takes many bold risks, but the quality significantly drops. For one, Tao’s storyline steps to the side, and a college-aged Dollar (Dong Zijian) becomes the focal point. Also, this act is almost entirely in the English language. We’re expected to believe that in the decade that Dollar has lived in Australia he’s entirely forgotten how to speak Chinese and is completely uninterested in his Chinese cultural lessons. The language barrier and Dollar’s lack of interest in his family’s culture pits him against his father.
“It’s like Google translate is your real son,” Dollar exclaims in a heated-argument between the two.
What’s really strange about this whole segment of the film is that no one—including Dong Zijian—seems comfortable working in the English language. It’s a bold choice that takes the themes of Mountains May Depart into an interesting direction, but this risk doesn’t pay off. The loss of Zhao Tao completely derails the films momentum. Luckily, we have another great Chinese actress, Sylvia Change, playing Dollar’s professor turned love interest. Elsewhere, some of the most beautiful landscape shots are in this final act of the film. Cinematographer Yu Lik Wai takes full advantage of Australian terrain. Despite my criticism of the third act, the risks Zhangke takes are admirable. They’re decisions made by a courageous filmmaker. He’s taking the film’s themes further, and it makes his fumbles all the more forgivable. That’s the thing about Mountains May Depart; although it’s far from Zhangke’s strongest effort, you never forget you’re watching a film by one of the modern masters of cinema. | Cait Lore
Mountains May Depart distributed on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber with a street date of July 12. Extras on the disc include New York Film Festival: A Conversation with Jia Zhangke (73 min., courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center), a booklet with an essay by Aliza Ma, and an original trailer.