Mountains May Depart Dir. Jia Zhangke

[Kino Lorber; 2015]

Styles: melodrama, “generation-spanning” drama
Others: Crash (2004), Mammoth (2009)

Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart covers familiar thematic territory for the acclaimed director. Like 2000’s Platform and 2004’s The World before it, this film concerns global capitalism, specifically its effects as it moves from the West to the East. Jia here focuses on a family, formed in the first of the three clearly demarcated acts (which takes place at the turn of the millennium), and splintered apart in the subsequent two. The final two acts move the action ahead to present day (2014) and then an imaginary future (2025) replete with translucent iPads and shiny glass architecture. As if the title cards indicating the year at the top of each act weren’t enough, Jia visually distinguishes these acts as well, framing the first in a boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the second in 1.85:1, and the third in wide 2.35:1. The broadening of the frame as the film progresses mirrors the characters’ physical and emotional displacement as their lives become separate, but what else this device could signal other than themes that are already readily evident in the story is vague. This is evocative of Mountains May Depart’s cardinal problem: that Jia overloads the film with stylistic devices, motifs, and storylines that are either slight, underdeveloped, or purely nonsensical.

The 1999 segment centers on a love triangle of sorts between Tao (Tao Zhao), a singer and songwriter who puts on a yearly performance in her home province of Fenyang for Chinese New Year, Zhang (Zhang Yi), a rich gas station owner who eventually invests in the lucrative business of mining, and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) a poor coal miner. Liangzi and Zhang compete for Tao’s affections. Tao’s interests remain largely static, content to keep Liangzi as a loyal friend as she leans towards Zhang as a romantic partner. Zhang and Tao’s relationship is developed mostly with scenes in which Zhang entices her with a new foreign car or his bright prospects as a business magnate. Zhang’s efforts to secure Tao and squash any chance Liangzi might have become psychopathic when, even after he and Tao are more or less a couple, he searches for a gun to kill Liangzi with (itself borderline implausible and superfluous as a story element). When no one will sell him a gun, he settles for dynamite instead. Tao is of course caught in the middle of their macho competition for her (perpetuated almost entirely by Zhang), but the film doesn’t express her position in convincing, or even very thoughtful terms. When Tao discovers the dynamite Zhang planned to kill Liangzi with, we’re made aware of her misgivings about marrying him by a shot of her rhythmically banging her head against a wall.

The first act is punctuated with the birth of Zhang and Tao’s son, whom he names Daole (or Dollar, the words’ aural similarity made explicit when Zhang addresses his son as Daole, then says he “will make [him] many dollars”). Forgiving this choice’s obviousness with respect to the film’s themes of global capitalism, it remains incredibly lazy. After all, it’s easier to make a character’s metaphoric significance in the narrative literally manifest in their name than to imbue that character with characteristics and place them in scenes which suggest that significance. Naming this character “Dollar” stifles and confuses his significance even further. The name locks the character into a slim set of interpretations, chief among them that he is merely a result of his parents’ capitalist concerns. However his actual role in the story is much more suggestive of generational conflict and the cultural Westernization of China. This is especially evident in the third act, in which a 19-year-old Daole (Dong Zijian), who is pretty much exclusively referred to by this point as “Dollar,” lives with his dad (who divorced Tao between the first two acts) in Australia, having forgotten completely the Mandarin he spoke fluently as a seven year old in the second act and with little remaining memory of his mother despite that she is named Tao. The divide between Daole and the now-bankrupt Zhang, who speaks little English and relies on a translating app to communicate with his son, is painful for them both, but the script still doesn’t express this in a sufficient way. A line of dialogue that ends one of Zhang and Daole’s myriad arguments, not helped by Dong’s maladroit delivery, “You are my dad… but it’s like Google Translate is your real son” is laughable though it crystalizes a legitimately intriguing plot device — a father/son relationship that must be mediated through an inadequate apparatus.

It’s appealing to imagine where this film might have gone had Jia let most any of his various story elements breathe against the film’s suffocating construction. The second act is also exemplary in this regard. In this act, Daole lives in Shanghai with Zhang and his new girlfriend, and Tao remains in Fenyang looking after Zhang’s old gas station. Although the bulk of this act concerns a reunion between Tao and Daole which is catalyzed by the death of Tao’s father (not-so-subtly revealing his character as one who is only present to advance the plot), the act begins with Liangzi being diagnosed with cancer as a result of his mining job. Still a struggling working-class citizen, he and his family are unable to pay for treatment. He reaches out to Tao for help, bringing the story back to Fenyang. Liangzi never appears in the film again, ostensibly because his disease kills him, though this is never made explicit. This sequence serves to get rid of Liangzi and shift the film’s focus back to Tao and accomplishes little else. It makes one question the purpose of Lianzgi’s character in the first place, as he mostly faded into the background of the first act. This would constitute simply unremarkable filmmaking if these story elements didn’t hold such potential on their own. The sequence with Liangzi at the top of act two amounts to an anecdote in the scope of the film’s story but covers themes of institutional negligence of workers and the dangers of hard labor itself. These are only given a mere suggestion. Mountains May Depart ultimately incorporates a lot of disparate elements and tries to force them into a narrative which attempts to make a critical statement on global capitalism. However, these elements are individually, distinctly thematic and thought-provoking, congealing only into a collage that distracts from the intended overarching statement.

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