UK Release Date: 15th December 2017
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Writer: Jia Zhang-ke
Starring: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jingdong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang
Synopsis: The lives of a family are explored over the course of three time periods, with various life events pushing some members together and others apart as time passes.
The oncoming tide of globalisation and the frequent movement around the world of modern workers is certainly ripe for big screen exploration. Unfortunately, Jia Zhang-ke‘s Mountains May Depart is not the compelling tale that the concept should have been. It’s a film of soaring ambition that spans more than 25 years across its three, clearly-defined acts, but constantly loses track of its story threads and seems to get bored of characters at random intervals.
We start in 1999, with Tao (director’s wife Zhao Tao) struggling to choose between two potential suitors. She ultimately opts to marry high-flying entrepreneur Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) over more sensitive miner Liang (Liang Jingdong) and they have a child, which he chooses to name Dollar in reference to all of the money he’s going to make. Fifteen years later, Liang is struggling with illness and the couple have divorced, with a family tragedy bringing Dollar back home to Tao. In 2025, Dollar (Dong Zijian) is living in Australia with his jaded dad and begins to question whether he’s in the right place.
There’s no faulting Jia’s cinematic ambition here. Mountains May Depart spends much of its running time critiquing the rush to globalisation, with China accused of becoming more Western in its culture. The movie is book-ended by renditions of the Pet Shop Boys track ‘Go West’, in a lyrically explicit nod to that ethos, with the first rendition considerably more colourful and optimistic than the chillier and more bittersweet final scene. When the film trades in these ideas, it is at least interesting, but it can often occur to the detriment of the characters, who flit in and out.
Zhao Tao’s strong central performance comes into its own in the middle section. Tao is entirely believable as a woman who can see she has made the wrong choice and trying to make the best of a new life. Her complex, fraught relationship with her son is tough to watch and Tao elicits real emotion from the audience in their scenes together. The same is true of Liang Jingdong, who is tremendous as a taciturn, sick miner in the middle section, but disappears from view before his story can resolve itself.
The movie’s confusing lack of focus comes to a head in the final segment, which sees Dong Zijian’s incarnation of Dollar struggling with a forced move to Australia. He forms a relationship with his much older teacher and is at least partially estranged from his father, who is shown as a broken man living in his swanky apartment surrounded by guns, in an overt symbol of Western decadence. This segment is wildly separate from everything that has come before and its suggestions of future technology are odd without ever really going far enough. It falls to the snow-covered final shot to bring everything back to the emotional resonance which, by that point, is nothing more than a speck in the distance.
Pop or Poop?
Ambitious movie-making is not enough for Mountains May Depart, which allows its time-hopping ideas to draw focus away from the characters that actually provide the film with its rather substantial heart. Jia Zhang-ke knows what he’s trying to say, but doesn’t quite have the tools to tell it, though he almost saves the day with a memorably complex final dance sequence.
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