For a filmmaker whose rhythms and affectations can tend to put viewers at an emotional distance, it’s wise of Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke to choose decade-spanning melodrama as his genre of choice. Given my inexperience with his oeuvre, I can only speak as a viewer of Still Life, a film ruled by a sense of political austerity and devastating financial restrictions, but even there Zhangke utilized surreal, sci-fi tinged visual gestures to convey his socio-political ideas. Those affectations are expressive as ever in Mountains May Depart, but here his most surreal and risky choices are kept refreshingly at bay until the third act of the film. His subtly fantastical decisions over that final stretch may well leave the film in shabbier, less genuinely moving, shape than it might’ve been without them, but for its beautifully sustained first two acts, this is Zhangke at the peak of his seismic visual storytelling powers.
Not missing any opportunity to emotionally hook his audience, Zhangke roars us in with an absorbing and ecstatic dance number, coinciding with a New Year’s Eve celebration ringing in 1999. It’s the dying year of the old world his characters have grown up in, but for a brief, beautiful time, it’s a nourishing communal environment, made dazzling by frequent celebrations. Characters are repeatedly lighting off firecrackers, playing jovial, emotionally cathartic music, and participating in community parades. By the time a character is gifted a puppy, it feels like Zhangke is spoiling us with adorable elements. This opulent paradise is clear enough to us, as it is to Tao (Tao Zhao), the beautiful, ebullient object of desire for her two closest friends, the enterprisingly wealthy Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang) and the more humble-means Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang).
Naturally, both men are too adamant in their courting of Tao to relish the immediate joys in their life, or to civilly maintain their friendship with one another. This slowly builds a competitive fracture, not just between the two, but in their relationships with Tao. As she gradually becomes less of a friendly confidante and more of a bright, shiny trophy, we see the great emotional strain placed upon her, unable to maintain any opposite-sex friendship without being shamed for not putting out. There are plenty of rises, falls and defeats, but the most vividly fractious is a club dance sequence, where two bodies move in beautiful syncopation. These bodies have chosen to lock step and mirror one another, but while Tao puts investment in her partner, the man she’s chosen can just as ecstatically dance on his own.
As the first act closes, we jump forward fifteen years to the present day, 2014, and we see the consequences of Tao’s decision play out for herself and Liangzi, whose poverty and long-term isolation have taken an extreme toll on his body and spirit. As brutal as the class disparity between him and his former friends is, he finds some degree of personal grace and closure in the aftermath. That privilege of peace isn’t an option for Tao, who has long since divorced her husband and lost access to her son, the only constant rock in her life. When another loss in her family occurs, Mountains May Depart enters its most devastating stretch, as the joys and freedoms of 1999 become a faint memory, yet Tao still strives to create a lasting emotional tie with her distant son.
At last we reach the third act, where we take a further time jump into the uncharted territory of 2025, though the dystopia it presents is as familiar as what Spike Jonze’s Her predicted. The sense of technological connection, yet more profound detachment, has expanded to consume the psychology of Tao’s now young-adult son Dollar (Zijian Dong), whose name is both an unfortunate exertion of father Jinsheng’s ego and a blunt class designation. Just as Dollar is starting to consider reconnecting with his mother, more distant now than ever, he starts a rather disconcertingly Freudian relationship with his much older Chinese-language teacher.
At this point Zhangke’s ideas about isolation and digital connectivity become perhaps too on-the-nose, but more than that Zijian Dong struggles too much to exert his character’s profound emotional anguish. Zhangke’s grasp of atmosphere and melodrama also starts slipping as he transitions to primarily English language. His most intriguing unifying gesture across the three chapters is how Zhangke incrementally widens the aspect ratio with each time jump, though the effects of this widening feel inverted. The 1999 chapter feels bursting with bright, irresistible energy. 2014 feels like a bittersweet middle-space between isolation and activity. 2025, contradictory to its widened scope, features the emptiest spaces. It’s only when we conclude field-set dance sequence – at once mirroring the film’s opening and that of Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother – that Mountains May Depart finds some kind of serene, if imperfect, closure. Years fly by and technology continuously flattens international borders, but our ingrained emotional origins hold on resiliently.
Bottom Line: Before making its socio-political points too bluntly in its third act, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is an explosively opulent, yet emotionally wrenching melodrama.