A triptych of melancholy Chinese stories, Jia Zhangke’sMountains May Depart builds an awkward narrative of nostalgia – past, present and future.
Homelandby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
I’m not sure if it’s a geometry or an algebra problem, but there’s certainly a problem with Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. Divided into three parts, the latest film from the Chinese filmmaker to take place in his hometown of Fenyang opens in 1999, as twenty-somethings Tao (Zhang Ke regular Tao Zhao), Zhang (Yi Zhang) and Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) are caught in a love triangle. It’s an allegory that pits the traditional China of coal-mining and worker socialism against the new money of China’s new breed of entrepreneurs, as Tao is forced to choose between her two suitors. Although unfortunately, the characters are all so empty and unlikable in the first chapter of Jia Zhangke’s most unambitious film to date, it makes it difficult to really care. The middle panel of Zhang Ke’s triptych, which takes place in the present-day and sees Tao divorced from Zhang and robbed of her son Dollar in a custody battle, as well as Liangzi returning to Fenyang with black lung from the coal mines, steps up the emotional drama as Tao comes briefly into contact with her son when his grandfather dies. Although structurally, it’s really only setting the scene for the final act – set in Australia in 2024, as high school graduate Dollar (Zijian Dong) tries to work out what to do with his life. Haunted by vague memories of dumplings, popular tunes and the set of keys his mother gave him, Dollar pines for an unknown homeland, as Mountains May Depart makes an appeal to Chinese ex-pats the world over not to forget the Land of the Red Dragon. It might not be perfect, as witnessed by the grey dilapidation of Fenyang, but still the door is always open. Filmed partly in home video, and with an affecting performance from Tao Zhao (even in her sprightly dance routines to the Village People’s Go West), Jia Zhang Ke’s latest film makes for an intriguing, thought-provoking rumination on modern China. But over-ambitious in its scope and sloppy in its characterisation, Mountains May Depart is unlikely to move many mountains.
Mountains May Depart is now showing at the London Film Festival