It has never been out of the ordinary for filmmaker Jia Zhangke to tackle topics relating to China’s social and economic evolution. In 2012’s A Touch of Sin, the auteur explored how the social economy can motivate violence. In his 2004 film The World, he examined China’s place in the global economy and how this influences the lives of workers at a Beijing theme park. In his latest, Mountains May Depart, Jia uses America’s globalization of China as the backdrop to a decade-spanning story of a naïve woman.
The film opens with a group of Chinese twenty-somethings dancing to “Go West” by The Pet Shop Boys. With lyrics such as “Together we will go our way / Together we will leave someday” and “Go west where the skies are blue / Go west this is what we’re gonna do,” Jia’s message is not exactly subtle. He foregrounds his common themes immediately, yet allows them to remain somewhat indirect throughout the first act of the movie.
The year is 1999 when singer/dancer Shen Tao, played by Jia’s muse Zhao Tao, finds herself in the midst of a love triangle. Vying for her heart is capitalist Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a young, cocky man who has recently come into quite a bit of money; Jinsheng represents the best that the west has to offer. Less pursuant, though equally in love, is the quiet Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). Liangzi, a miner, belongs to the lower class. He is intimidated by his rival and knows that with his great wealth, Jinsheng can provide a better life for Tao.
It is only after this love triangle plays out that the story truly begins. After nearly fifty-minutes, the film’s opening title card finally appears and we are thrust into the year 2014, where we meet our characters once again. Finally, in an audacious decision, Jia brings the film to the year 2025, where America’s influence over the rest of the world is in full force.
Jia’s virtuoso direction and a masterful performance from lead Zhao Tao allow Mountains May Depart to work as a successful examination on the passage of time. Jia foregrounds each chapter within its time period by using different aspect ratios. In 1999, the image is shown in a 4:3 ratio. In 2014, the image becomes wider and in 2025 we see the film through glorious cinemascope. If the appearance of dates on screen weren’t enough, the film also mentions real-world events, such as the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.
The director’s foray into the future is ambitious to say the least. Jia nearly borders on sci-fi with his assumptions of upcoming technology innovations. What stands out most about this time-period is the way in which the characters communicate. Jia has imagined a future where English is the universal language; Mandarin being a language resigned to the elderly.
The film shows a future where human communication is disintegrating. Not only do people use technology to communicate, but even the way in which they talk with one another seems stunted and forced. The awkward English dialogue between Chinese actors may seem like the result of poor acting on the surface, but Jia is far too experienced for that. Instead, this form of expression reaffirms the overarching idea that as a race, humans are failing to fully express themselves to one another.
Ultimately, the most important element that is required to effectively display the passage of time are the actors. Zhao Tao must portray her character from her mid-twenties into her early-fifties. Similarly, Zhang Yi must play the humble Jinsheng in 1999 and 2025, while Liang Jin Dong must play Liangzi in 1999 and 2014. Zhang and Liang are great, but it is Tao’s performance that carries the film. With the help of a skilled makeup department, the 38-year-old Tao provides a disturbingly convincing performance. She captures the essence of a young woman in her twenties, naïve and unharmed by the world just as well as she captures broken woman in her fifties, struggling to move on from years of betrayal and heartbreak.
One cannot deny that Jia is treading on familiar thematic grounds with Mountains May Depart, but the auteur is exploring previously well-established themes in entirely new ways. In a sense, it seems as if Jia’s entire filmography has been building to this film. It is a permutation of his best work and largely due to the heart wrenching performance by Zhao Tao, it just may be his masterpiece.
Zhao Tao’s awe-inspiring performance and the pure audacity of director Jia Zhangke make Mountains May Depart the auteur’s best effort to date.