Mountains May Depart – Film Review by Aisling Foster
Director and Writer: Zhangke Jia
Cinematographer: Nelson Lik-wai Yu
Starring: Tao Zhao, Yi Zhang, Jing Dong Liang, Zijian Dong.
This very Chinese story traces the lives of three childhood friends through three periods of seismic change, from the pleasures of a newly consumerist 1999 to a dystopian 2025. First seen line-dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’, the easy companionship of two young men and the vivid 18 year old Tao is already evolving into something much more grown up. When Tao chooses Jinsheng, a brash proto-capitalist who is already taking over the local coal mine, their friend, Liangzi, a gentle miner, leaves town. Eventually Tao produces a son whom her ghastly husband names Dollar.
Leap forward to free-market 2014 and it is no surprise to find Tao living alone with a pet dog (very new China), her super-rich ex having won custody of Dollar and taken him to Hong Kong. When her son is flown back for her father’s funeral, an aloof little stranger arrives (surely far too young for this chronology?) unable to understand the local dialect. More grief is heaped with the return of Liangzi, gravely ill and, in the brave new ‘liberated’ China, needing money for his surgery.
2025 arrives as a final warning about the effects of global capitalism. Set on the wild west coast of Australia it is the weakest (if necessary) section of the film, the theme of cultural erosion somewhat over-emphasised by repeated scenes of inexorable ocean waves.
Yet as these stories emerge from the smog of an old-style mining town into a dazzling, sun-bleached future it is difficult to tell exactly where the writer-director really stands. Zhangke Jia is an international artist, straddling East and West. For him, so much change may be regrettable, but the instability he suggests has been there from the start, subtly amplified by slow, wide-screen camerawork and a brilliant soundscape. There’s no time to blink when scenes of ancient village streets, huge ice floes or softly drifting snow might be ripped apart by fireworks, sudden crowds and even an unexplained plane crash. Shifts between different Chinese languages – and the communication gaps they cause – will probably be missed by a western audience, but in a film extraordinarily short on dialogue, the long silences are disorienting enough – especially when the camera asks us to read the thoughts behind some perfectly immobile face or listen to a character kept deliberately out of frame. Perhaps, as the Pet Shop Boys advise, China, like everywhere else, is going West, but at moments like those, the word ‘inscrutable’ is a tough one to avoid.