It’s the eve of the millennium in Fenyang, China. It’s a time in which the country’s traditional values are fading and its people are beginning to dream increasingly westernised dreams.
Director Jia Zhangke’s (Still Life, A Touch Of Sin) Mountains May Depart tells both the story of a nation, and that of three individual characters, through three periods of time: 1999, 2014 and 2025.
Jinsheng, Yi Zhang (The Golden Era, Dearest) is the confident capitalist and one of two admirers of Shen, Tao Zhao (Better Life, The World)—the wholesome beauty and sweetheart singer. Shen’s second admirer is Liangzi, Jing Dong Liang (The World, Platform)—a hardworking mine worker and contented traditionalist.
It’s an imperfect love triangle which sets the story’s wheels in motion. Shen must choose which man she wishes to fall in love with, and which to lose. There is no in between.
Despite the length of time Jia devotes to this mangle of relationships and burgeoning love, it’s difficult to call it the focus of his film. Shen, Liangzi and Jinsheng are merely the vessels that carry forward the story of the People’s Republic of China: a ship headed into unchartered waters and one whose voyage will be smoother for some than others.
When Shen is wooed by entrepreneur Jinsheng’s future prospects, they marry and have a child. Their baby soon becomes known as Dollar, in case, somehow – after the opening dancing scene to Pet Shop Boy’s Go West, the parading of a German engineered car and boasting of driving said car to the American land of dreams—we hadn’t quite understood that this was a story about capitalism.
In the third and final prologue, we meet a much older, almost entirely westernised Dollar in his now home of Australia. He does not speak Chinese, restricting his ability to communicate with his bankrupt father and is no longer connected to his mother.
And it’s in this last chunk of the film that Mountains May Depart plays its hand. It’s what gives the film its scope and scale. It isn’t the strongest of the three sections though; that accolade would have to go to the second. Set in a believably futuristic 2025 Australia, Dollar instant messages and surfs on a transparent tablet type device and gazes out to sea from his father’s modern penthouse. It views like a mash up of Black Mirror’s Nosedive and San Junipero Season 3 episodes—which is a little jarring after an hour and 45 minutes of soft melodrama.
By and large, this is a film well worthy of watching. It’s difficult to think of another similarly ambitious film released this year. There are some problematic parts though. The entire third chapter is, as mentioned, haphazardly bound to the melancholy and gentle emotive pace held in the prior two chapters. There’s a bizarre plane crash too, which felt more at home in a Sharknado film.
Ultimately, the film’s charm was simultaneously its chink in its armour. The ambition and scope it will undoubtedly be known for was, in my opinion, what spread the movie too thin and in turn made it less affecting than it could have been. This is a director who many in the business are watching very closely and one I would happily watch the future works of. My only hope is that next time Zhangke wrangles with something a little more compact.
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