Set across three decades and two continents, Mountains May Depart is an affecting and ambitious tale of social upheaval in modern day China.
The opening sequence of Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart shows an energetic young crowd bopping along in a dance class, fittingly enough, to ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys. The year is 1999 and change is afoot in the People’s Republic of China. The mood is one of optimism as a booming economy and greater co-operation with the globalisation of trade and capital promises to benefit many. Change, however, will also cause disruption, and this latest offering from an acclaimed director offers a poignant take on how quickly one person’s life trajectory can be bent and shaped by politics and economics.
The film follows three young adults in their late twenties: down-to-earth coalworker Liangzi, impulsive entrepreneur Zhang Jinsheng, and Tao, a beautiful young woman who must choose between the affections of her two male friends. Split into three acts, the film moves from 1999, to 2014, to 2025, and shows us the fate of Tao and her family in each decade. This provides a jolting, ambitious narrative, one which can tackle a big social topic such as the tension found between emigration and tradition thanks to its swift time-shifting perspective. Zhao Tao (who plays Tao) gives a strong performance playing a character who hopes to be pragmatic about the future irrespective of her emotional misgivings. Zhang Yi (who plays Zhang Jinsheng) is also impressive as a volatile, intensely ambitious businessman.
There are similarities between this film and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, as both films tell stories of intergenerational upheaval in ambitious ways, moving across characters and timelines without becoming overcrowded. Mountains May Depart, however, resonates more strongly at an emotional level, having a more opaque and uncertain quality to its story-telling, getting under your skin by virtue of its fragmented and incomplete structure, which leaves some questions tantalisingly unanswered. Occasionally, the lack of character development can be slightly frustrating, but this is still a rich piece of filmmaking regardless of its broad brush strokes.