The entwined subjects of time passing and landscapes changing have always been synonymous with the work of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke; his latest feature, Mountains May Depart, expands these ideas to a point that exists beyond any previously established horizon. The film may well be Jia’s most ambitious to date, in this respect: it spans three decades in all, touching down in 1999, 2014 and 2025, so essentially covering our past, present and future. As with all of Jia’s work, location here plays an integral role – like Platform and Pick Pocket, the narrative revolves around the director’s hometown of Fenyang – with scenes unfolding among local festivities on packed streets, or upon the scorched earth of a local coal mine that recalls similar shots in Barbara Loden’s Wanda. And just as we witnessed the gradual construction of the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam (and inevitable destruction of the town it casts in shadow) in Still Life as a point of reference for time passing and life changing, here we notice the steady alteration of the Fenyang landscape as nature powerlessly gives way to industry. This is represented in the film’s two male characters, each of whom initially orbit Tao Zhao’s female protagonist, affectionately and aggressively: one is an honest, hard-working coal miner and the other, the Volkswagen-driving owner of said coal mine.
There is, however, another key technique employed to anchor our moments in time and differentiate between the tale’s different periods. It’s something that becomes both a notable departure from the Jia norm and also one of the film’s defining features. As Xavier Dolan (a jury member at Cannes this year, lest we forget) did in Mommy, here Jia plays with aspect ratio in order to lend both a fitting frame and some added context to what we are seeing. While Mommy alternates between academy ratio and widescreen to juxtapose moments of hopelessness with moments of hope; moments of constriction and moments of freedom, Mountains May Depart simply assigns a different format to each of its three distinct chapters. It might sound like something of a gimmick, but each format comes to symbolise the content to which it is applied, from tradition and heritage to innovation and possibility. We open in 1999 and 1.33:1 to the cacophonous sounds of shiny-faced, exuberant locals who one assumes are ringing in the new millennium to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”. This is the longest part of the film at almost an hour in length, progressing in its entirety before the opening credits roll and we move on to 2014 and 1.85:1, as hopeful enthusiasm has given way to death and divorce; suffering, that ranges from the physical and psychological to the economical. Finally, there is the third act: shot in a more extreme widescreen (perhaps 2.35:1) and set in 2025 along some nameless, luxury Australian peninsula.
Unfortunately, the third act is really where Mountains May Depart falls down, and does so in a spray of glory – not unlike the dunking of a surfer beneath the waves – as our view shifts from the familiar features of Jia’s Shanxi province to a clean, sunburned strip of Australian beach community. The exteriors here strongly resemble, at least to this British onlooker, those of a certain tanned Aussie soap opera or two – and unfortunately the resemblances don’t end here. In a way, this closing chapter also somehow pushes the film towards territory that is more classically Hollywood in nature; the sprawling, life-spanning dramas of Douglas Sirk, perhaps. That is, if Sirk was ever concerned with such trivialities as imagining the technology of the future, which raises its head here in the form of transparent tablets and smart, harmonic living spaces similar to those explored in Spike Jonze’s Her. The chapter ends with a standoff between father and estranged son not unlike that seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, where the language barrier is finally broken down and bridges are burned once and for all. This should be a moment of liberation; a high point, so to speak, though is dragged down by such laughable lines as “You may be my father, but your real son is Google Translate.” Mountains May Depart begins by suggesting some kind of distraction and obsession towards western capitalism; stereos and cars, the whole idea of “going west”. It ends in a place where life is seemingly constructed out of such material things, for even communication between a father and a son – hilariously given the name Dollar by his materialistic patriarch – is impossible without technology.