The latest film by Jia Zhang-ke to reach the UK has taken two years since its appearance at Cannes in May 2015. I’m not sure why it has taken so long but it certainly seems to have confused a few critics. Jia has made several different kinds of films over his career and this one looks back to his earliest films, but also forwards to the future. I found it fascinating, not least in its use of popular music – the film begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys version of ‘Go West’ which Jia has said was a favourite at the height of the disco boom in China in the late 1990s. In some ways, the film is quite straightforward as a story narrated over three distinct periods. But it’s easy to miss some of the important underlying ideas. I recommend reading the Press Notes which can be downloaded from the Cannes website.
Outline (trying not to give too much away)
The story begins in 1999 with a triangular relationship in Fenyang, Shanxi province in Northern China, with Tao (Zhao Tao) attempting to decide between two suitors. She will marry one and the other will leave the city. Several years later Tao has a son.
In 2014 Tao has separated from her husband and doesn’t see her son who lives far away. Tao helps her old friend and former suitor when he returns to Fenyang. A family event brings her small son back to the city for a visit.
In 2025, Tao’s son is living in Melbourne and as a 19 year-old is adrift and not sure what he wants out of life. Does he want to find his mother? What has happened to her?
The outline doesn’t sound very much but I’ve purposively kept it simple. Here’s the director’s explanation of what the film is ‘about’:
From the very start I conceived Mountains May Depart as a film about ‘love and relationships’. In China, we generally put those two words together in the word qingyi: the component qing means emotional affection, and the component yi means bonds of loyalty and obligation. In Shanxi, though, we’ve tended to distinguish between qing and yi; for us, yi has more to do with commitment and responsibility. Even when people grow apart over time, yi of some kind can still exist.
Reflecting on the film (which I saw before reading the Press Notes) this statement makes a lot of sense. What Jia appears to be doing is going back to Fenyang to rediscover qing and yi and then ‘testing’ the characters and their relationships to see whether economic growth and the lure of individualistic capitalism can break those bonds of yi. It isn’t just money, but also the prospect of migration that causes change. It seems significant that Jia originally thought of setting the third section of the film in the great migrant communities of Vancouver, Toronto or New York, but in the end opted for Australia. He explains that it isn’t so much the distance to Australia, but more the different seasons in the Southern hemisphere that make it seem more ‘on the edge of the world’. He does, however, include an important character in the last section who originated in Hong Kong, but has lived in Toronto before arriving in Melbourne. Australia and New Zealand are certainly important destinations for Chinese migration today.
The three sections of the film are presented in different aspect ratios. I’m not sure if it’s quite as strictly defined as that (I noticed that the ratio had changed, but not necessarily when it changed.) 1999 is presented in Academy, 2014 in 1:1.85 and 2025 in 1:2.39. The reason for this appears to be completely pragmatic (though it also ‘marks’ a change in technologies over time). Jia grew up in Fenyang and made his first three films there with cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai. These films (Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures) are very much concerned with the ‘feel’ of the city and its youth and Jia and Yu shot quite a lot of footage using early digital equipment with a 4:3 image format. Some of this is used in the 1999 sequences and again in the 2014 section (when the documentary material was shot on an Alexa in 1:1.85). It then seemed logical to present the third section in ‘Scope. The use of documentary footage certainly enhances the sense of place – but it also disrupts or ‘makes strange’ the narrative with the insertion of odd events – a plane crash, an old truck nearly losing its load.
I’ve seen several several reviewers refer to Mountains May Depart as a melodrama. I’m not sure that is the most helpful categorisation here. It’s true there is music and there is a symbolic use of colours (the film tending to move from reds to blues and greens) and objects such as sets of keys – and there is a family drama. But Jia tends towards films that refuse conventional descriptions. This is perhaps closer to an ‘essay film’ about the Chinese future. It is the last sequence that has exercised Western critics most. The section is mostly in English and has a focus on language and identity (and in which the Taiwanese and Hong Kong star, actor-director Sylvia Chang plays a significant role). There is only a minimal concern with ‘futuristic’ objects, including some very attractive translucent tablets (complementing the moment in the 2014 sequence when iPhones are ceremoniously given as wedding presents). The concept of a Chinese community struggling with identity in Australia seems quite plausible to me. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time and it may well send me back to looking again at Jia’s earlier films. I’m beginning to think that it is the links between films that need to be foregrounded and I was struck by how this film links to Wrath of Silence (China 2017) in selecting the private ownership of coal mines as an indicator of potential problems for Chinese society. On the other hand, several critics have suggested that Jia deliberately courted the Chinese government by including various lines of dialogue in this film after they banned the release of his previous feature A Touch of Sin (China-Japan 2013). Zhao Tao is extraordinary in this film, offering a performance that spans 26 years and convincing the audience each time. I’m always impressed by the work of Yu Lik-Wai, who has also worked on three films by the Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui.
Here’s the US trailer (note that the trailer doesn’t use the three different aspect ratios):
(It has been pointed out to me that the Australian scenes in the last section were shot in Western Australia as well as Victoria. I took the location to be Melbourne because of what I thought was a reference in a subtitle for a line of dialogue. It doesn’t really matter as long as it signifies Australia since the last section is an imagined future.)