Mountains May Depart (2015)

The film contemplates on globalization, the loss of cultural identity, and the yearning for connection by traversing three decades.

8/30/20235 min read

Zhao Tao in 'Mountains May Depart"
Zhao Tao in 'Mountains May Depart"

Mandarin, English,

131 mins, 2015

Director: Jia Zhangke,

Cast: Zhao Tao, Jingdong Liang, Zhang Yi, Sylvia Chang, Dong Zijian

Awards: Nominee Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2015; Winner, Best Screenwriter and Nominee Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Asian Film Awards, 2016; Winner Best Editing, Nominee Best Movie, Best Director and Best actress, Chlotrudis Awards, 2017; Best Foreign Language Film, San Diego Film Critics Society awards

Film is divided in three time zones- 1999, 2014 and 2025, each set in different decade. We start with 1999 in Fenyang city in Shanxi province of China where Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) has two close friends - Liangzi (Jingdong Liang), a mild mannered but grounded coal mine worker and Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) an ambitious businessman who is a show–off. Soon the friendship turns into love triangle and Jinsheng becomes possessive about Tao. This sets off a confrontation and though Tao is torn between the two, she chooses Jinsheng. Liangzi is distraught and leaves city telling her that he is never to return. A son is born to Tao and Jinsheng, who he names Zhang Daole.

We now come to phase 2, year 2014- Tao and Jinsheng are divorced and Tao still lives in Fenyang and runs gas station. Jinsheng lives in Shanghai, has married to a different woman and has become wealthier. Daole, Tao and Jinsheng’s son is living with father since he won the custody after divorce. Liangzi is working in another coal mine in the city of Handan and has become ill. The doctor suggests he go to better city hospital for further check-up. Unable to work further due to his illness he comes back to Fenyang, the city which he never wanted to return. Now he is married and has a child. Liangzi’s wife and Liangzi discuss about money required for treatment and she says she can borrow from friends. She goes to see Tao and informs her about Liangzi’s bad health and their financial condition. Tao goes to Liangzi’s house and gives him money required for treatment. Meanwhile, after few days, Tao's father expires and she is shattered. Her son Daole is called to pay respects at his grandfather’s funeral. However, Daole’s alienation from Chinese culture and his indifference irritates Tao. However, she keeps sharing moments with him and travels in a slow train to see him off to Shanghai so that they can share maximum time. She gives him her house keys telling him that these keys will remind him that he has a house where he can return anytime.

Cut to elevan years later, year 2025- Jinsheng has migrated to Australia and is known by the name of Peter. Peter is living alone with son Daole who is now called Dollar (Dong Zijian) in university. Tao is still in Fenyang and living a solitary life. We do not know what has happened to Liangzi. It seems even director has forgotten about him. In a class where all children of Chinese origin are taught Chinese, Dollar too is learning Chinese from Mia (Sylvia Chang), a Chinese language teacher. Dollar works in a fine dining restaurant as part time worker. He once delivers a food parcel to Mia thereby discovering her residence. He grows closer to her and attempts to get in a relationship. Mia is much older to him and mature enough to understand the fragility of their relationship. Dollar, once tells her about the keys to his house in Fenyang which Tao had given him. She urges him to go to meet her. He reasons that he has not talked to her for years.

Dollar has a constant yearning for freedom- basically living a pressure and stress free life. He tells that to his father Peter who gets angry. Dollar takes Mia to converse with his father in Chinese as an interpreter as he is not good in Chinese. During the animated discussion, his father asks him where is he going to live because he cannot live here if wants to drop out of college. The talks are inconclusive and Dollar is even more hurt. As the film ends we see Dollar saying the word Tao but is still in Australia and Tao is dancing alone in snow-wilderness in Fenyang to a song ‘Go West’ on which she had danced in 1999.

The film, in essence, comments about cultural alienation by new Chinese generation, especially the ones staying away from China. Interestingly, as the time zones change so does the aspect ratio of the movie. 1999 era is filmed in older 4:3 format. Once we come to 2015, aspect ratio changes to 16:9 wide format and when we jump to 2025, aspect ratio changes to much wider 21:9. Zhao Tao is superb who captures the character's evolution from youthful optimism to a sense of dissatisfaction in middle and ultimately to resignation. Others are also good. Dollar played by Dong Zijian is impressive. But sadly the film doesn’t stick. You don’t feel emotionally attached to any character or any takeaways except director’s Jia’s lament of how globalisation has alienated young Chinese from China’s culture.

About the director, Jia Zhangke

Born in May, 1970 at Fenyang in Shanxi province of China, Jia enrolled in Shanxi University as an Art student after finishing school in 1990s. He joined the prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 1993 which opened the flood gates of world cinema for him.

He made three short films while in academy. The second short, ‘Xiao Shan Going Home’ left Chinese shores and was screened at Hong Kong where it won top Prize at ‘Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards’. He was noticed by film world in general and producers in particular since the film had a different style and narrative.

Soon, due to his short film’s success, he started preparing for his first feature film, ‘Xiao Wu’ which eventually was going to be shot later. ‘Xiao Wu’ is about a pick-pocket on the backdrop of massive changes sweeping Chinese society. This film was a big success in international circles. Banking on success of first feature, Jia made two more feature films outside Chinese Film Apparatus. The first of those was ‘Platform’ (2000), a film about a dance and music troupe, which faces societal changes with changing times. This was primarily funded by Hubert Bals Fund Award through Busan international Film festival, South Korea. His third film, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (2002) was result of ‘one-child policy’ of Chinese government. No wonder then that none of these three films were publicly released in China but were circulated through DVDs earning him wide recognition at home and abroad.

However, after this film Jia began working with government and made many films like ‘The World’ (2004), ‘Still Life’ (2006) and ‘24 City’ (2008). ‘Still Life’ won ‘The Golden Lion’ at Venice international Film festival and ‘24 City’ was screened in competition section at Cannes Film festival.

‘A touch of Sin’ came in 2013 and was also screened in competition section at Cannes Film Festival. His present film ‘Mountains May Depart’ was made in 2015. Jia’s films found wider international audience due to his penchant for depicting contemporary Chinese society as opposed to other filmmakers who took recourse to Chinese history and legends. Jia is regarded as one of the key filmmakers of ‘sixth generation’ of Chinese filmmakers.