Mountains May Depart Review
You are never sure what to expect from director Zhangke Jia. He has made 13 features and his ninth after 2013's A Touch of Sin is Mountains May Depart. The film opens with a choreographed dance number to the tune of the Pet Shop Boy's 'Go West' before the start of the new millennium. From there it progresses to a standard melodrama plot about a young woman, Shen Tao, who has to choose between two suitors. There is either the down to earth miner, Liang "Liangzi" Jangjung, or the flashy and slightly suspect Zhang Jisheng. She inevitably picks one, Zhang Jisheng and the two get married, then after a few years, Shen Tao gives birth to a baby boy named Daole or Doller.
After the birth of Shen Tao's son, Mountains May Depart shows its true form. This film is an exploration of a time and a nation. After the birth of Daole, the film flashes forward 15 years to 2014 when Zhang Jusheng and Shen Tao are divorced and Daole lives with his father in Australia. The film is split into three separate chapters that all deal with a different period, exploring the nature of time and the development of what it means to be Chinese during the radical shift in political opinion. China in 1999 still suffered from the economic policy of Deng Xiaoping whereby "Some areas [of China] can get rich before others" meant that unregulated wealth gaps and unemployment crippled China's economy. We can see that at the start of the film as Tao and her friends wind through decrepit streets of 1999 full of rubble and the distant colourful pagoda towers in the background. Then, in 2014, at a wedding, Tao is responsible for giving the couple his and hers mobile phones as part of the ceremony.
In both sections, Shen Tao is still trying to hold onto her simple way of life, her family and her identity as Chinese in the face of rapid modernisation. She tries to stay friends with both Jisheng and Liangzi, however, is forced to choose between the two. Leaving her to try and maintain her relationship with her child who lives in another country, raised by another woman and slowly losing her connection to Tao and China. The river that runs through the town where Tao lives, however, flows on. This is a very Narusian metaphor, for those unaware Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse made films around the same time as Yashijiro Ozu and used similar images in his films to symbolise the nature of time, fate and humanity. Jia Zhangke, by calling on this little-known director’s iconography, similarly seeks to explore how people relate to the rapid flow of time. It makes the first two sections of the film incredibly thought-provoking and emotionally weighty.
Powering this film and the important themes that it explores is a solid emotional core provided by Zhangke Jia's longtime collaborator (and wife), Zhao Tao, as Shen Tao. She plays Shen Tao in all three stages of the film, and is able to create a progression in the character over three very important parts of her life. She is at first a youthful optimist looking forward to the bright future of the 2000s. Then in 2014, is crushed by tragedy after tragedy revealing the most emotional climax of the film as she clings onto her relationship with a son she may never see again. This being coupled with Jia Zhangke's sensibilities as a sixth generation Chinese filmmaker means that what we get in Mountains May Depart is a neo-realist, surreal melodrama that hits surprisingly hard.
Unfortunately, the film begins to weaken around this third act. The faux science-fiction seems to get in the way of the emotional crux of the film. It is too full of strange technology and a weird romantic subplot that felt irrelevant to the overall story and admittedly overt message. It has been suggested that Shen Tao only dreamt or imagined the final part of the film. However, while certainly a fascinating perspective, it only seems to justify a lack of stylistic cohesion that dismantles the film's tone.
That said, is still a vital film that allows for an odd mixture of different elements to exist together in a highly emotionally-charged package. This is all grounded, despite each surreal twist, by a fantastic central performance from Shen Tao who is able to summarise the conceit of the film with a look. Mountains May Depart would have been perfect if it weren't for the end, which lends an odd aftertaste to an otherwise clean and refreshing film.