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.)
Jia Zhangke is one of the most important directors in China and within global cinema. He wrote and directed this film titled carefully to nod towards King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Taiwan 1971) and his script won the major screenwriter’s prize at Cannes in 2013. Why then has it taken a year to get to the UK and still hasn’t got a Chinese domestic release?
The second question is perhaps easiest to understand since Jia paints a disturbing picture of contemporary China. The Chinese censors have succeeded in stimulating the circulation of pirate copies to significant audiences in China. The problems with UK distribution of anything other than Hollywood blockbusters are well known. I’m glad that Arrow managed to get the film into a few UK cinemas but I fear that they don’t have the muscle to promote it properly. But then Jia isn’t the easiest filmmaker to put before the public. The content of his films often appeals directly to popular audiences but the pacing and contemplative style sometimes cause barriers. But if you can get into the groove, Jia offers both great filmmaking and plenty to think about.
A Touch of Sin is based on four news stories from the past few years, all discussed on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Weibo) but not so readily on official Chinese News channels. Importantly, the stories emanate from Shanxi (North), Chongqing (West), Guangzhou (South) and Hubei (Central) – and not from Beijing or Shanghai (or the most remote parts of the country). This is like a UK film featuring stories from Dundee, Southampton, the East Midlands and North Wales – but not London. The stories are also said to make references to traditional wu xia tales. Much has been made of this apparent shift towards genre filmmaking but the links to Jia’s earlier films are still strongly in place.
The four stories represent the lives of ‘ordinary people’. In one a worker in a town which has effectively been ‘sold’ by a local politician eventually flips and attacks what he sees as the parasites who are destroying opportunities for local people and stealing all the profits. In another, a man who travels hundreds of miles to find work in order to support his ageing mother decides that robbing (and killing) the rich on his travels is more profitable. A woman finds work in a sauna/massage parlour before the behaviour of the guests drives her to violence and in the final story a young man is driven to despair by the alienation of working in a typical Chinese factory making goods for the West.
Jia allows the stories to overlap (two characters from different stories might pass each other at a road junction or a railway station) so that we get the impression that we are on a roundabout constantly moving through stories about degradation in modern China. The settings for some of the stories are the mundane cityscapes and small town milieu familiar from Jia’s earlier films but they also include some of the more surreal settings Jia has also previously explored – a resort/nightclub with girls dressed in outlandish costumes recalls The World (2004). The inference seems clear – the negative impact of globalised forms of ‘recreation’ alongside the mind-numbing factory work courtesy of contracts for global corporations.
The moments of violence are presented in well-edited action sequences but the overall aesthetic is of the long take and long-shot composition. This, for me at least, is the most distinctive aspect of Jia’s style and I marvel at his ability to compose images with his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai. The protagonists of three of the four stories are actors I recognised from other Chinese films, including his partner Zhao Tao.
I have no doubt that there was much I missed in the representations of modern China in these four stories. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again when it appears on DVD (September in the UK). Please don’t miss it!
I suspect that for many fans of ‘World Cinema’ one of the main attractions is the opportunity to vicariously experience different landscapes and urban environments. Shun Li and the Poet represents the town of Choggia in the Veneto region of North East Italy so strikingly that audiences are likely to feel that they have actually been there. I know that I’m tempted to book a trip right now.
Writer-director Andrea Segre is primarily a documentarist and also a researcher in the ‘Sociology of Communication’. He brought all his experience into play in creating this study of the meeting of two migrants from different communities in the very specific waterside setting of the Veneto region. The Press Notes for the film are a very useful source of material detailing the background to the production which was developed via various production labs.
Shun Li is a Chinese migrant worker from the coastal city of Fouzhou in South East China. We see her first working in a sweatshop in Rome. She is summoned by the bosses and told that she is being sent to Choggia where she is installed as the single worker running a small café-bar (osteria) on the waterfront, mainly used by fishermen. Gradually she gets used to the regular customers, mostly older men who have retired from full-time work. They are generally welcoming, teaching her the local dialect. One of the men, Bepi, is a widower who came to the area thirty years previously from the former Yugoslavia after Tito’s death. He is known among the men as ‘the Poet’ because he can produce attractive rhyming couplets and this helps him find common ground with Shun Li who celebrates the work of the classical Chinese poet Qu Yuan. Shun Li also tells Bepi that the men of her family have been fishermen for generations. Apart from the developing relationship between the two poetry lovers, not much happens in the plot but eventually the friendship creates unease among both the local residents and the Chinese bosses who control Shun Li’s fate. There is some mystery attached to exactly how the situation is resolved – a mystery enhanced by a mise en scène dominated by the dark alleyways, mists and watery sun, the overflowing canals and the fishing huts and stationary nets in the lagoon. Anyone terrified by the Venice of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) will be familiar with how affecting a glance under a bridge or down an alley can be in this part of the world. None of these images are created in an obviously expressionistic way but the views of the Dolomites, snow-capped mountains that seem to loom over the coastline on the other side of the lagoon, are extraordinary (they are actually over 100 kms away). The mountains are only visible at certain times (see this Flickr photo).
The success of the film partly derives from the terrific performances of the leads. Zhao Tao as Shun Li brings her wonderfully still presence from the films of Jia Zhangke – films that in some ways share the sense of place, working-class cultures and social change. Rade Sherbedgia is well-cast as a Yugoslavian who has now become a valued presence in international features. The rest of the cast comprises a mixture of professionals and non-professionals from the region. Segre’s experience and research shows in the beautiful long shots and the handling of scenes on the water and in the bar. This is one of my films of the year and I was very pleased to be able to see it on the big screen of the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford. It has taken some time to reach the UK and I was only aware of the film because it had been discussed at the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester earlier this year. Curzon/Artificial Eye have the UK rights and they seem happy to play it online – I haven’t seen it getting much theatrical exposure but if you go to the Artificial Eye website you can find any play dates or how to watch it online.
Here’s the UK trailer. It’s a very good trailer and I’d be surprised if you didn’t want to see the film: