The one thing to remain unchanged after being flushed through the tripartite structure of Jia Zhang-ke’s flawed, fascinating Mountains May Depart isn’t what you might expect: Time will not wither the Pet Shop Boys, whose fittingly titled “Go West” can still apparently unleash the same carefree enthusiasm when the film opens in 1999 as when it closes in 2025. This knowingly melodramatic look at the past, present, and possible future of China is uneven, moving, and ultimately hard to pin down, its seeming simplicity soon blooming into an enigmatic complexity which harnesses the emotional to address the global.
The film opens just before the turn of the century, where colors are bright and the mood is one of optimism, even as the boxy aspect ratio suggests that life isn’t free of restriction. Like her country, Tao (Jia’s perpetually engaging muse Zhao Tao) is bursting with life and wanting to push at boundaries, the most pressing being those imposed by her two friends, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), both of whom are interested in her and are continually pressing her to plump for one of them. As this love triangle unfolds in unusually classic fashion, references to the timeframe abound: talk of Macao being returned to the Chinese, coal mines being sold off at rock-bottom prices, the great sound quality of combined CD and cassette players. Tao’s two suitors clash with such vigor that she’s forced to make a decision, gifting one a wife and eventually a child and leading the other into self-imposed exile.
The throwback colors, sweaty club scenes, and sense of heady possibility all make 1999 feel like ancient history, an impression only heightened once we hit a broader-ratio 2014 in the second part. It’s here that Jia’s games with melodrama and the passing of time start in earnest, as the seeds carefully scattered in the first part now begin to sprout. It’s the return of Tao’s exiled ex-suitor that sets a chain of quietly devastating reveals in motion, treated with a reserve hardly typical of your standard weepie: 15 years of working in a coal mine aren’t good for your health, marriage doesn’t last forever, and gaining custody of your child isn’t easy. These narrative revelations find their emotional echo in how the country itself has now changed, with the matching of his and her iPhones given as a wedding gift to a bi-national couple making the cassettes of yore feel painfully, impossibly quaint. Some of the contrivances work better than other here, with the return of a prominent jumper and a dog feeling cheap rather than profound, even as the fact that Chinese trains remain identical, but just much, much fuller feels oddly heartbreaking.
It’s the unlikely third-part arrival in a widescreen, English-speaking Australia in 2025 that proves to be Jia’s undoing, as the stilted dialogue put in the mouths of actors not speaking their mother tongue conveys a sense of all-pervading artificiality that goes far beyond acceptable artifice. Yet if you’re willing look beyond the packaging, this final act is so teeming with ideas it can be hard to parse them all. Will Chinese expansion transform Western nations into such Asian-dominated zones that the immigrants will need to brush up on Chinese culture? How much translation is needed for different generations to talk to one another? And are feelings ever truly extinguished or do they merely become channeled into something else? Perhaps Jia’s most cunning ploy here is to pose these questions in the future, thus creating a doubled-up speculative framework whose only anchor to the past is feeling. And as the Pet Shop Boys blare for one last time and the same joy is unleashed, it really does seem as if the only thing to survive all these many transitions is pure emotion.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13—24.