Jia Zhangke’s decade-spanning Mountains May Depart unfolds as a story that thoughtfully and nostalgically evokes Chinese culture, society and family, lamenting its deterioration in the midst of globalization. And, relaxing the emotionally remote grip of his earlier works, this is the most spirited Jia Zhangke has likely ever been.
Mountains May Depart, set in China during 1999, opens with a portrait of a love triangle. Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) have been close friends since childhood, but their relationship strains once they both fall in love with Tao (Zhao Tao). Jinsheng warns Liangzi that he has no chance with Tao, and is eventually proven right once Jinsheng and Tao plan to marry. Tao begs for Liangzi to be there at her wedding, but he has already made plans to leave their town: he is not sure where he is going, but he is positive that he will never be coming back.
Flash forward to 2014: Tao and Jinsheng have divorced, and their son Dollar (an offbeat choice of name that invites a passing consideration of what the US Dollar implies in the changing global landscape during the film’s third act) lives with Jinsheng in Shanghai (Tao explains to Liangzi that Jinsheng won custody because a major city would provide him with a better quality of life); Liangzi is married, and has a son himself. Liangzi develops a chronic illness that will require hospital treatment he and his wife simply cannot afford, and reunites with Tao, who lends him the money he needs. When Tao’s father passes away in transit to a vacation, Tao demands that Jinsheng fly Dollar back to her for the funeral. Harrowing in her depiction of Tao’s sorrow, Zhao Tao (a strong contender for Cannes 2015’s Best Actress laurel) hits a peak in her stunning performance, culminating in a devastating funeral sequence. When, all too soon, it is time for Tao to send Dollar back to his father, the two of them bond in a heart-wrenching train ride as they listen to music, and she gives him a set of keys to her home, hopeful that he will accept the invitation to visit her more often.
Mountains May Depart‘s final third, set in 2025, is its most emotional and romantic. Now in his early twenties, Dong Zijian is wonderful in his performance of Dollar as a young adult. Usually all smiles, with eyes sparkling, he effortlessly radiates sweetness. Sylvia Chang is a wonderful screen partner: as his much older teacher, Mia, with whom he finds love, she nails a difficult tonal balance in her suggestion of a maternal quality, without making it feel inappropriate. Having been educated in an international school, Dollar is only fluent in English, so Mia moderates and translates an argument between Dollar and his father Jinsheng, where he expresses the age-old motif of post-adolescent thirst for freedom and self-discovery, while Jia expresses a sadness for a generation which is losing its roots, and is unable to communicate with their families in the looming reality of globalization. In a helicopter bound scene that shows Fifty Shades of Grey how it’s done, Dong and Chang share a beautiful chemistry that relieves the potential awkwardness of their age gap. In the following scene where he tearfully explains the significance of the key Dollar wears around his neck, Dong is heartbreaking. The two decide to plan a two-part trip to Toronto (Mia’s hometown during her now failed marriage) and to go visit with his mother, whom he has not seen since his grandfather’s funeral.
Full of praise for Mommy (directed by current Jury member Xavier Dolan) when he was part of 2014’s Cannes Jury, saying of its actors that “You can feel the passion and freedom inside of their bodies,” Jia Zhangke appears to channel this inspiration into his new film. Lifting a few of Mommy‘s style cues, Jia employs changes in Mountains May Depart‘s aspect ratio, and his repeated usage of Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” (for fans of Kim Hye-ja’s dance scene in Mother, in the film’s coda, Zhao Tao has a joyous dance moment even more dynamic at the end of Mountains May Depart) is a musical selection worthy of Dolan, revitalizing a pop classic as his own cast conveys their own passion and freedom (an especially contentious, recurrent theme in Dollar’s trajectory).
Mountains May Depart is consistently moving and warm, expressing its emotions more openly and eagerly than Jia has before, but is still as formally controlled as ever. Perspiring joy and sadness, while never precious, cheap or saccharine, Mountains May Depart proves why Jia Zhangke is a modern master.