After the uncharacteristic fear and loathing of A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhang-ke returns to his melancholic, ambivalent roots with Mountains May Depart. As ever, the filmmaker’s pet theme is China’s ever-rapid turn toward capitalism, using shifts in technology and business to reflect changes in social values. The promise of this new age is embodied in the film’s opening shot, of a group of people dancing wildly to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” as they prepare to ring in the new millennium. With its synthetic bounce, the song heralds the 21st century both with its sunny optimism and its futuristic sound, and the characters’ carefree dancing reflects the jubilant celebration.
Like Jia’s Platform, the film is divided across three distinct time periods. But where the director’s earlier film traced a significant portion of the 20th century to chart both the rise of communism and the first traces of its own supplanting, the director’s latest feature reflects the faster pace of late capitalism by compressing its own rapid change into a period of just over two decades, from the recent past to the near-future. The first, and longest, centers on a love triangle between Tao (Zhao Tao), the rich investor Zhang (Zhang Yi), and the poor coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jing-dong). Their early interactions are convivial and even humorous, as Zhang takes the other two for a ride in his new Volkswagen that he boasts is “just right for a new century.” Yet Zhang’s cockiness falters when he actually gets behind the wheel, and he betrays his inexperience when he freezes at the sight of a large coal truck coming toward him and accidentally activates windshield wipers he doesn’t know how to turn off.
This first segment encapsulates Jia’s strength as a screenwriter in etching blatantly metaphorical characters who nonetheless embody their symbolic properties through intimate, human behaviors and observations. The clear political allegory between Liangzi’s working-class labor and Zhang’s venture capitalism is mitigated by their more direct romantic competition, so that even Zhang’s talk of investing in coal while its value is down and hurting workers like Liangzi acts first as a way to take a shot at a rival. But competition is perhaps the wrong word: From the moment Zhang rolls into frame flashing cash, Liangzi becomes all but a background figure, nothing more than a friend who occasionally gets to enjoy her company. Zhang establishes dominance so swiftly that his attempt to acquire a gun—and the hilarious compromise of dynamite—to kill the miner is redundant. Soon, Tao is engaged, and Liangzi slinks away from her life, defeated.
It’s the fleshed-out first segment that best presents characters with actual lives, as compared to the thinly veiled talking points of the film’s second half.
The subtext of these scenes is clear, and Jia fills in spaces with linked visual cues of a changing China, like those of a woman carrying a traditional sword down a busy street or a pillow shot of a Buddhist temple looming over the smoke that rises from the more contemporary buildings below. The next two segments further develop the visual commentary with aspect-ratio shifts from the original full-frame to 1.85:1 and 2.35:1, respectively. The increasingly wide ratios signal the rippling impact of a consumerist value system on China, and ironically, the drama compresses more and more as the image gets bigger and bigger. The green-blue skies of the first section become 2014’s gray-green smog banks, indicative of the haze that surrounds the now-divorced Tao as she idles in middle-class comfort.
Here the film lurches from evocation to direct address, a shift heralded by the naming of Tao and Zhang’s son, Dollar (Dong Zijian). By the time he’s seen as a young adult in Australia in 2025, Dollar’s every thought and action is stamped with greater meaning. By forgetting Mandarin by the time he comes of age, he also forgets his mother’s name, which means he’s forgotten China itself. This thematic transitive property portentously weighs down a sideplot involving Dollar’s romantic interest in Mia (Sylvia Chang), a Hong Kong expat who becomes both lover and mother surrogate, while Zhang can be seen in outright caricature at the end as a prisoner of his own excess, puttering around his condo with too many guns and nothing to shoot.
Jia’s decision to withhold the film’s title until the conclusion of the first segment situates the aftermath of the romantic/business schemes as the true focus. Yet it’s the first segment that feels the most fleshed out, not only for its length, but for how well it presents characters with actual lives as compared to the thinly veiled talking points of the film’s second half. In Jia’s best work, a plotline like the lung cancer that threatens Liangzi in the present day would speak volumes about the conditions of the working class who power China’s rapid modernization while also involving the emotions and personal failures of the people around him. Here, however, the tragedy of the man’s situation is muted by the importance Jia places on its implications. The final act’s use of English connotes many things about China’s changing relations, but above all it seems to embody how desperately Jia wants to reach his audience, even if in the process he reduces his poetry to SparkNotes.