Following his well-regarded A Touch of Sin (2013), which played in Cannes a couple of years ago, Jia Zhang-ke is back in competition with a new three-part drama, Mountains May Depart (2015). Each section takes on a different period in time starting in 1999. China is moving toward the new millennium with confidence and optimism – ironically underlined by a group dancing to the pumped-up strains of The Pet Shop Boys singing The Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. This is before the popularity of widescreen televisions, and so the first section takes place in the old box pan-and-scan 4:3 ratio. Two friends Liang (Liang Jingdong) and Jingsheng (Zhang Yi) vie for the affections of Tao (Jia’s wife Zhao Tao).
The playing field, however, is far from level. Liang is a lowly coal miner whereas Jingsheng is an entrepreneur with a new car and the idea of perhaps buying the coal mine himself, what with it being so cheap and all. Tao is torn between Liang’s honesty and cheerful ease and Jingsheng’s obvious wealth and the excitement and security that he promises. All cannot go well and Jingsheng and Liang’s friendship soon sours to open enmity, with the threat of violence looming large. The second section takes us to 2014. Tao and Jingsheng have been married and are now divorced. Their son, Dollar, is being brought up by the increasingly wealthy and powerful Jingsheng. The screen is a little wider now and Jia adds a number of touches to show the passage of time.
The primitive pagers and mobile phones from the first section are replaced by the now ubiquitous smart phones and tablets. As if to insist not everything changes, Jia includes recurring shots through all three sections. A boy carrying a traditional spear becomes a young man and then an adult. Tao has been marginalised and she must silently grieve for the son she sees turning from her and treating his step mother with more affection. He doesn’t even properly understand her language any more. The old generation begin to die and the present must look to a more uncertain future. Liang has married and has a son, but his years in the coal mine have damaged his health and the prospect of an early death looks imminent. The operations he needs will be expensive. But there are still options available to escape the tyranny of technological improvement. In a lovely scene, Tao chooses to take the slow train in returning Dollar to his father so that she can spend more time with him. The final section set in the future is unfortunately where Mountains May Depart escapes the gravitational pull of good sense.
Dollar, now living in Australia with his increasingly unhinged and estranged father, feels attracted to his cougar Chinese teacher, played by Sylvia Chang, who herself has emigrated to Australia via Canada. Here, Jia’s futurism is light-handed when it comes to technology – smartphones are transparent – but baffling in terms of mores: a young man with an older woman is hardly a cause for scandal today let alone in 2025 and it is highly unlikely that Australia will change their gun laws anytime soon. More damagingly, as this section is almost entirely in English, Jia seems less in control of his cast, who with the exception of Chang, give unconvincing and stilted performances, Liang Jingdong sporting what must be this year’s least-convincing moustache. This is a pity, as every section seeks to deepen and complicate the basic message of Mountains May Depart – that the incredible speed of technology and society has its prices and dangers – and the failure of the final section dilutes where it should intensify.