Jia Zhangke has made something of a career out of charting his nation’s history through the lives of ordinary people caught up in the business of living when everything about them is changing. Mountains May Depart isn’t the first of his films to span a comparatively wide period of time, though it is the first to venture into the “future”, if only by a decade or so. A story of dislocation and isolation both cultural and personal, Jia has crafted a melancholy story of those who grow up to discover that all the wrong choices have already been made.
The film begins at Chinese New Year 1999 - the dawning of a new age. Tao line dances and conga lines to The Pet Shop Boys’ Go West before joining in the celebrations by singing a song in the town square. She’s good friends with Liangzi, whose company she seems to enjoy - they seem to get on together very well but it’s unclear if there’s anything more to it than that. Obnoxious rich boy Jiangsheng is also very interested in her and resents her friendship with Liangzi. Eventually things come to a head and Tao has to choose - this she does, but in trying not to hurt anyone she ends up hurting everyone instead. On Tao's eventual marriage to Jiangsheng a heartbroken Liangzi leaves town, intending never to return. The segment ends with the birth of Tao and Jiansheng’s son, Dollar.
In 2014, Tao is divorced and Jiangsheng has taken her son to live with him in Shanghai where he’s a high stakes capitalist mogul. Liangzi, meanwhile, has married and had a child but has ended up working in a coal mine and has now become gravely ill. Unable to work he returns home and considers asking friends and family to help him through these difficult times. Sometime later a family tradgedy occurs - the one silver lining being that Tao gets to see Dollar again, but he barely remembers her and makes constant phone calls to his “mommy” in Shanghai.
In 2025, Dollar and Jingsheng have moved to Australia. Dollar is taking classes in Chinese which he barely remembers while Jingsheng has become a dishevelled and angry old man. Dollar has almost no memory of his real mother or his childhood in China and starts up an oedipal relationship with a lonely, older Chinese woman.
Jia paints the passing of time through a series of expanding screen ratios - beginning with 4:3 in 1999, to 16:9 in 2014 and finally 2.35:1 in 2025. The world literally gets bigger, wider and our focus shifts from Tao to a more expansive canvas of displaced Chinese citizens finally reaching far across the seas. The first segment is more like Jia’s earlier films as Tao is caught between two lovers with possibly tragic consequences, whereas the second part has more in common with his last few films and part three takes things in an entirely new direction.
The 2025 segment doesn’t even feature Tao until the very end and focuses on her son - the ironically named “Dollar”. Having lived the last ten years in Australia he barely speaks Mandarin and has become an angry young man determined to drop out of college because “nothing really interests him”. Jinsheng never learned English and the pair can’t communicate. Gone is Jinsheng’s swagger - now he has a paunch, dishevelled hair and an unruly mustache. In 1999 he dressed in the self-consciously stylish clothes of someone who has money and really wants you know it, but now his clothes are worn out and typical of any old man you might find sitting reading a paper on the side of a road. Dollar is lost. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with his Chinese teacher that’s founded on the shared loneliness of two people who’ve been separated from their homelands and loved ones. Looking for his mother in all the wrong places, Dollar’s eventual romance is likely to end in tears, but luckily his Chinese teacher is a wise and kind woman who is able to offer some of her wisdom and a steady hand of guidance.
Though much has been made of the “futurism” of the 2025 segment, it’s in no way a science fiction experiment. The chief difference, as might be expected, is in technology, though even this is subtle - see-through tablets, electronic displays rather than blackboards (only a little more advanced than many institutions already use) and a much more intuitive embedding of Google Translate. More distracting are the strange anachronisms - vinyl records being played on a classroom turntable, visiting a travel agent to book a flight (does anyone even do this now?) and a preference for older cars. Most damaging though is that, as it’s set in Australia, the bulk of the dialogue is in English, which somehow never sounds convincing despite the quality performances on offer.
Dollar wants his freedom from his overbearing failure of a father, though freedom itself is also a burden. The son flails aimlessly while the literal motherland, Tao, is alone, abandoned and forgotten. There’s something quite heartbreaking in the way Jia sculpts this over-arching story. We begin with so much hope as Tao and her friends dance enthusiastically to the rather ironic choice of Go West in 1999 as her life is just beginning. When she dances to it again, alone, with the snow falling all around her it’s as if she’s crawled inside a memory, reliving a happy day rather than exulting in the now.
Mountains May Depart is a rich and complex film that is heavy with symbolism and metaphor. Jia wants to ask us where we’re going, and where we’ve been - China’s modernisation has occurred at such a breakneck speed that it’s left an entire nation bewildered. Facing a choice between “going west” and “taking care” of Chinese values (Sally Yeh’s 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care forms the opposing musical motif of the film) many, like Tao, have found themselves choosing poorly and paying a heavy price. What’s in store? A lonely, but wealthy, future devoid of all human connection where “sons” forget their “mothers”? The title suggests old friends like mountains and rivers never part, but once the erosion sets in mountains crumble and rivers run dry - you have to look around you and remember what it is that’s really worth living for.
Mountains May Depart was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015 and will be released in the UK by New Wave Films in 2016