By Tristan Teshigahara Pollack
Tao (in a career-defining performance by the director’s longtime muse Zhao Tao) and a group of young 20-somethings ring in the turn of the millennium as they cheerfully dance in synchronized form to the Pet Shop Boys’ rendition of «Go West»: a lyrical pun on China’s progress – or is it cultural disintegration? Thereafter, she charges through the quaint countryside on the back of a Vespa that she rides with Liangzi (one of the two suitors who is deeply in love with her). Thus begins the prologue to Jia Zhangke’s sweeping magnum opus. While some may find the triptych format of his latest film Mountains May Depart (2015) too austere and slow-moving, we simply cannot ignore the fact that Jia Zhangke is a skilled and epic storyteller. In fact, the director has flirted with this mode of storytelling ever since he made The World (2004), and he has consistently found new ways to deconstruct and evolve cinematic form. In that film, he hybridized fantasy and reality, thereby cleverly injecting his personal and political woes by using the Beijing World Park as a backdrop – a real-life surrealistic theme park that attempts to give visitors a glimpse of the world without exiting Beijing.
Mountains May Depart takes that same poetic realism and prolongs it over the course of 26 years: hovering over the protagonists in 1999 (the past), 2014 (the present), and finally 2025 (the near future). Many other filmmakers who tread that path usually resort to melodrama or cliche-ridden sci-fi, but Zhangke and cinematographer Yu Lik-wai employ a different aspect ratio with each period, which begins with the 1:37 square ratio and slowly expands to the widescreen ratio, subtly suggesting the passage of time. The widening depth of the screen not only serves as a marker for historical changes that take place, but it also serves as an indicator of the way people physically drift away and lose physical intimacy with each other.
The film begins in 1999 with the awkward love triangle between dance instructor Tao (Zhao Tao), Liangzi, a coal miner (Jing Dong Liang) and Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang), an ambitious businessman. Tao falls into a quandary, when Jinsheng out of uncontrollable jealousy, tells her that he can leave her with no other option, but to make a decision between the two men. Tao chooses reason over intuition: her heart tells her she would be emotionally content to lead a simple life with Liangzi, but her mind tells her to marry Jinsheng, someone who can be a gateway to modern freedom and Western comforts. She goes with reason.
Part 1 concludes with the newlyweds having a child. Jinsheng proudly names their son “Dollar,” as he holds the newborn’s hand and declares, “Baby Zhang Dollar, daddy will make you lots of dollars,” not surprisingly his self-fulfilling wish comes true. Tao becomes a mature, but forlorn woman as a result of a marital failure. Subsequently her loneliness takes on catastrophic proportions after her father dies, and sees the way her own son has been raised not to consider her feelings or family. Moreover, the most revealing scene takes place between Tao and Dollar when she sees him off to the airport. The camera looms in front of them in a single take, truthfully capturing the near transformation of a mother and son virtually becoming strangers: they are mostly silent with each other and somehow music seems to be the only form of real communication. No, she doesn’t play the Pet Shop Boys song, but rather shares a different song from her youth, the Cantopop song by Sally Yeh called «Take Care.» This is where the film slowly begins to unravel itself. On a textual level, the film traces a Chinese family wrecked by the misguided dreams extended across several generations.
However, the subtext is the dark existential crises that carry over global identity in the name of economic and technological progress. The director subtly suggests that if this is a life mapped out by its dark fate of spiritual and cultural alienation, then we will certainly be unprepared for the futuristic shifts in which technology will become a part of the nuclear family. For the sake of this review, I will not discuss the last segment in great detail, as I feel it will give away much of the film, but what I will address is a possible analysis of what Zhangke is trying to tell us about the future. The future doesn’t necessarily scare us, but it cripples and oppresses us, in particular, it makes young people subservient to the world’s rapid progress. So does that mean that we have to accept grown-up Dollar as a symbol of passivity? Someone who is too demoralized to step up to the plate and make decisions of his own? Since cinema isn’t a mimicry, we know that Dollar is just one example. He does not encapsulate the whole ennui of millennials. Dollar certainly struggles with love itself, but we remain hopeful.
Mountains May Depart is unsparingly honest with the thing that matters most in life: love. And not just the romantic kind, but a very genuine, nearly extinct, dutiful kind of love. Based on the way Jia Zhangke frames his last two shots, I would say that there is hope. Yes, we may lose some of our culture, our dialect, our language, our home, our family, our time together, but even if the future brings about a cultural onslaught of apathy, we can still learn to love one another.
Mountains May Depart screened at the NYFF on September 28 and September 29.
Shan He Gu ren
Directed by Jia Zhang-ke