Jia Zhangke’s “Mountains May Depart” takes place over a span of 26 years, extending from 1999, when China was in the early throes of capitalism, to a barely futuristic 2025, where the only thing looking the least bit out of the ordinary are the iPads. Is Jia trying to tell us something?
Although the film’s sociopolitical ambitions are voluminous, the central story is fairly simple. Tao (Zhao Tao, the writer-director’s wife) is an exuberant young schoolteacher in the small inland city of Fenyang, near the basin of the Yellow River. Her childhood friend Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) works in the local coal mine and dotes on her; so does Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a rising capitalist who becomes the owner of the mine. Rather too diagrammatically, these men represent the twin poles of Chinese youth: Liangzi is the dutiful, undemonstrative type, a man of the people; Jinsheng, with his fancy red car and reams of cash, represents the new order.
Tao, with perhaps an excess of innocence, doesn’t seem to register that these two guys are competing for her. When they finally square off, she chooses Jinsheng, not without regret, especially when Liangzi exits the city forever, leaving her bereft at the loss of a friend (and perhaps already aware of her mistake). Her wedding to Jinsheng is followed by the birth of their son, whom the father, not exactly subtle, names Dollar.
When the story picks up in 2014, it’s not surprising to learn that the couple has divorced. Dollar, attending an international school in Shanghai where he can learn English, is living with his father, who has full custody and a new wife. One of the film’s most resonant sequences comes when 7-year-old Dollar returns to Fenyang to attend his maternal grandfather’s funeral, even though he has virtually no memory of either his grandfather or even his mother. (The brief scene of the old man’s almost imperceptible passing while he is sitting by himself in a train station is piercing.)
What is so poignant here is that Tao lets it be known to the boy that he is better off living apart from her. She can’t help him in the way his father can. (They are soon planning to move to Australia.) What she doesn’t realize, although we do, is that Dollar’s soul is being irreparably rent. In the 2025 sequence, set in Australia, a teacher (Sylvia Chang) administers Chinese culture lessons to an indifferent 19-year-old Dollar, who responds to a question about the identity of his mother by saying, “I’m a test-tube baby.” It’s not altogether clear that he’s joking.
The first two of the film’s chapters – set in 1999 and 2014 – are often extraordinary. We see Tao progress from a bright-eyed gamine who loves to disco dance and sing at New Year’s celebrations to a weathered woman of some means, childless and living alone. Liangzi’s return to Fenyang, with a wife and young son in tow and in need of money, is heartbreaking not only because he is seriously ill but also because he represents a simpler, more humane way of life that is now beyond the reach of either of them. If Liangzi represents the film’s – China’s – proletarian heart, Tao is its guiding light. She helps him with a selflessness that is moving beyond all measure.
If only the third section were up to the others. Jia is an odd combination: He’s capable of the most subtle evocations, but he also has a hefty penchant for didacticism. The fissure in this film between the simple souls of precapitalist China and boors like Jinsheng, who has disdain for his son and loves only money and guns, is too neat. Despite Jia’s avant-garde stylistics (less pronounced here than in some of his earlier films, such as “The World”), he is at heart an old-school idealist of the poor-is-pure/rich-is-bad variety. It’s understandable that Jia would chafe at the Western-style avariciousness overwhelming modern China, but what of the murderousness of its ongoing communist legacy?
Another strike against the third section is that most of it is in English, and the acting and situations are insufferably stilted. Jia is a far better director than he is a writer, at least in English; we are handed chestnuts like “The hardest thing about love is caring,” along with prattle about how you have to feel pain in order to know you are in love. The bubbles from this soap opera get awfully frothy, especially when Dollar takes up with the teacher, who is, not coincidentally, roughly his mother’s age. Jia tries to bring everything full circle in the end, with a wordless cameo featuring Tao doing an impromptu dance in the snow while out for a walk with her dog, but by this time the film has already folded up.
It does leave you with something, though – a deeply wistful mood, if not a full experience. It bears out the sadness in a line from Tao earlier in the film: “Nobody can be with you all through life.” Grade: B+ (This film is not rated.)