Jia Zhang Ke’s Mountains May Depart is an epic vision of decades of change in China, its people and diaspora, with a compelling central character.
My Heart Will Go Onby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
By a strange coincidence, two wonderful Chinese films that look at the sweep of China’s history over the past decades have been released on the same day here in the UK, the other being Feng Xiaogang’s Youth.
Jia Zhang Ke’s Mountains May Depart is an epic in three parts running from the New Year’s Eve 1999 and the optimistic start of the new millennium into 2025 and the predicted future. In a northern mining town in China, Tao (Zhao Tao, Xiaogang’s wife and muse) is a charming, light-hearted dance teacher – the film starts with her leading a joyous routine to the irresistible Pet Shop Boys’ version of Go West, a musical nod to the direction that China is heading in. Two friends are in love with her: kind, lowly Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and newly successful entrepreneur Jinsheng (Yi Zhang). The three set off fireworks to celebrate the new year. This image recurs several times in the future, but then the explosions are the dynamite used in mining. Tao chooses Jinsheng, who buys the mine that Liangzi works in and spitefully fires him.
Unexpectedly, the film’s opening credits break in between part one and part two. Now it’s 2014 and Jinsheng is a millionaire living in Shanghai with their young son, whom he named Doale or Dollar (Zishan Rong), celebrating his rampant capitalist obsession. Tao is a mature, solitary, though well-off, figure still in her home town. Out of the blue, Liangzi returns after a 15-year absence spent trying to build a new life as a miner far away.
And in a futuristic Australia in part three, where iPad’s are see-through, a now-grown-up Dollar (Zijian Dong) is a deracinated ex-pat Chinese, who can’t even speak his dissolute, gun-toting father’s language and can’t remember his mother/the mother country. He forms a rather disturbing oedipal attachment to his older Chinese teacher (celebrated Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang) and she is the catalyst for recognising the significance of the keys on the chain around his neck.
The film’s arc is the searing changes in Chinese society as it embraces capitalism and increases globalism. As it progresses, the cinematography reflects it by starting with vibrant colours in a home-video aspect screen, opening out to conventional film narrative ratios in the middle section, and to wide screen, cool, sleek settings in the third. Characters come and go, disappearing for years and then reappearing, their stories are told in bursts of events strung together that sometimes leave you to connect the dots yourself. There’s repetition of shots that grow more significant over the course of the film – the explosions, the town’s pagoda, Tao’s striped jumper, the sentimental Hong Kong ballad and the catchy Go West.
Zhao Tao is wonderful as she evolves from the carefree young girl, to self-sacrificing mother to a quiet old age. Through the film’s structure, life repeats itself: mountains and rivers may disappear, epic events may happen but the heart carries on. Money and technology may seem to change everything but while humanity and feeling still survive inside us, they don’t have to: in China, elderly Tao dances alone in the snow to the Pet Shop Boys. Yoshihiro Hanno’s plangent music is also an important atmospheric presence. Some parts of the film are more successful than others, the vivid first part contrasting with the somewhat underrealised final part. But in any case it’s a tragically effective portrait of what’s happening to a country and a huge achievement.
Mountains May Depart premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 15 December 2017 in the UK.