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.)
Phantom was screened alongside a short film, Tokyo Dreams (Japan 2013) by Nicholas Barker. It’s not difficult to see the logic of the pairing. In Tokyo Dreams the camera captures commuters on Tokyo’s network of local rail services sleeping through the routine of their journeys. I wondered just how many of these sleepers had been asked to sign a release form for their appearance but otherwise the film didn’t do very much for me. Phantom is much more interesting. The title refers to the sense of people all around you in a city like Tokyo who are somehow not ‘solid’ and ‘connected’ to the life of the city. They aren’t ghosts but they haven’t got substance. The extract below includes the discussion of the term in the film.
Phantom is directed by Jonathan Soler and it is basically a one-person job. He is a young (born 1985) French filmmaker who has spent a year and a half in Japan. The idea of the film is an essay about living in the city constructed around a young woman and her boyfriend who spend a night when neither can sleep discussing how they feel about their lives in Tokyo. In fact it’s mostly the woman who reveals her thoughts and the boyfriend who listens and occasionally adds his comments. Soler auditioned actors to read the script he had written and then edited the dialogue before adding the image track. The images comprise short and long sequences in a montage of aspects of city life (trains again, discarded objects in the street, roads, buildings etc.) and some scenes of the couple in her flat or in art galleries, on walkways above the city etc. I got the impression that the views of Tokyo gradually moved from the centre of the city to the outskirts. The crucial point is that although we see the couple on screen, none of the dialogue is in synch with characters we see speaking – everything is in effect voiceover. Music is in an important part of the film. During the montages of Tokyo life, an electronic score underpins the camera’s movement but I think that during the dialogue scenes the music is absent. Soler credits several filmmakers as the possible source of inspiration for Phantom and it was Chris Marker’s San Soleil (with its Japanese sequences) that resonated with me.
I confess that I did find Phantom difficult to follow, although I found what the young woman was saying to be very interesting. Part of the problem was that I found it more difficult than usual to track the image while at the same time reading the subtitles. This was partly because the image was often very dark and blurred and therefore needed more attention, but the subtitles were also quite dense. The blurring of the image is a function of the decision to shoot in available light with the aperture on the Canon 50mm lens permanently set at f1.8 and therefore always giving only a shallow depth of focus. I can imagine that if I didn’t have to read the subtitles, I could have given more attention to the images. I also found the overall aesthetic (the music/silence, the dark screen and disembodied voices) to be quite good at lulling me to sleep. (I should have had the coffee before not after the screening!) This was unfortunate as the script has plenty to say about being young in the city.
The young woman eventually reveals that she is well-educated, including a year spent overseas, but can only get temporary work – often as a menial worker. As well as the stress of not being able to afford her modest flat and enough food to keep her going she feels that she can’t be part of urban life (we watch her eating instant noodles). She describes how she feels that the world around her is floating, coming apart. She talks about having to return to live with her mother – the common issue for young adults across the developed world today. She also refers to more specifically Tokyo issues. At one point she says that some people live in manga cafés and both she and her partner dream about opening a small bar/restaurant – which made me think of the excellent Japanese film Dreams For Sale (Japan 2012). She mentions two novels that she has been reading. One is Horoki, a 1927 novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Hayadhi was known as the major writer of ‘women’s literature’ which for many years was deemed ‘inferior’. Several of her books were adapted by Naruse Mikio for his great melodramas of the 1950s. Also mentioned is Kanikōsen (1929) a short novella about exploited crab-pickers that has also been filmed (twice) and adapted for the stage.
Phantom is an intelligent and original film. I think most of the people who have seen it (and have commented on IMDB) have done so via an internet link. The film is available (with English subs) from Amazon France (Region 2). Its theatrical screenings might perhaps be rare because its length (76 minutes) is best suited to compilation screenings in festivals etc. I suspect that it is actually easier to watch on DVD or on a computer screen. However, I don’t regret seeing on a very big screen. I would recommend the film and I’ll look out for future work by Jonathan Soler.
Extract explaining the meaning of ‘Phantom’:
Silence is a rare example of a genuine ‘art film’ on a standard specialised cinema release (a seemingly contradictory description, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it). The film directed by Pat Collins and written by Collins and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who is also the lead actor, has only a vestigial narrative. This involves an Irish sound recordist, currently living in Berlin, who accepts a job requiring him to record the sound of wild places devoid of human-created sounds. The recordist finds himself returning to Ireland and ultimately to the islands off the coast of Donegal where he grew up as a child. The idea as I understand it was to riff on the idea of folklore recordists/collectors who visited the west of Ireland in the 1930s/40s.
I suppose that Silence is a ‘road movie’ of sorts, but only if the narrative structural elements are the main criteria for generic definitions. The film is mostly concerned with visual and aural poetry. It’s effectively an ‘essay film’ in which the filmmakers explore the potency of landscape and how it can be represented through sounds in relation to concepts of family history, exile and migration. Nothing is stated directly. Instead we are offered the recordist’s (mumbled) conversations with a variety of characters he meets on his travels up the west coast of Ireland intercut with some archive footage and the sparing use of music, mainly traditional and classical. The key song appears to be the haunting Sandy Denny performance of her own ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ which appears briefly in the film and then plays through the end credits.
Silence was shot by Richard Kendrick on a RED digital camera using vintage Russian Lomo lenses for an anamorphic image presented in CinemaScope. The lenses soften the image and give it a specific texture that combines with the emphasis on natural sounds of wind, sea, birdsong etc. The slow pace prompts the audience to listen carefully to the soundscape. The sound recording approach from Éamon Little and John Brennan was influenced by the work of Chris Watson (featured in David Attenbrough’s natural history programmes). At times the editing of sound and image is pushed to the fore with overlaps of voices and images and conversations drifting in and out of synchronised sound. This is discussed by editor Tadhg O’ Sullivan in the Press Notes. O’ Sullivan knows Pat Collins well and in fact most of the ‘actors’ in the film play themselves. Collins is a documentary-filmmaker exploring his own (and Mac Giolla Bhríde’s) feelings about the landscapes of the west of Ireland and the stories of the people who have left.
The west of Ireland used to be one of the most populous parts of the country up until the great famine of the 1840s. Many people emigrated in the 19th century but a long slow decline then followed which seems to have now abated with some settlement by individuals looking for peace and solitude. But young people still find it difficult to get work and many have to leave. One of the poignant moments in the film sees Eoghan visiting a young woman in Inishbofin who has set up a local museum in an old storehouse. She speaks about going to boarding school and returning home to experience the coming of electricity to the island (which actually arrived in 2002).
I enjoyed the experience of watching the film in a cinema. It needs patience, close attention and lack of distraction to appreciate all its nuances. I would have found it difficult to watch on DVD and so I’m glad it got into theatrical distribution.