There’s no stopping Jia Zhangke. After his gloriously vindictive A Touch of Sin, China’s foremost filmmaker pounces back into the festival scene not with blood splatter but with fountains of tears. Yep. Our tears, precisely, as Zhangke gives those tearducts some serious workout with his take on the traditional weepie, this maximally ministered melodrama Mountains May Depart. The title itself is a harbinger of its epic, if not poetic, ambitions – a generation-spanning tale of love, identity and loss across the ravages of time, structured like a grand, old novel, familiar yet foreign at the same time, monumental and yet executed with intimacy. For Zhangke constructs an elaborately old-fashioned Hollywood narrative, if it weren’t for its Chinese socio-political antecedent, with this portrait of an ill-fated love triangle whose lives will unfold and unravel throughout decades, along with its repercussions and tragedies of their age and the ones they beget. The likes of Victor Fleming or William Wyler would have commanded such picture back in the days, and somewhere along this vision, Bette Davis would have made a perfect Tao, the youthful maiden turned long suffering mother played by Zhangke’s muse and wife, Zhao Tao, who plays the role beautifully.[divider]+[/divider]
The title itself is a harbinger of its epic, if not poetic, ambitions – a generation-spanning tale of love, identity and loss across the ravages of time, structured like a grand, old novel, familiar yet foreign at the same time, monumental and yet executed with intimacy.[divider]+[/divider]
It’s this quality of sweepingly old-fashioned, wistful emotions combined with contemporary arthouse sensibilities that make Mountains May Depart such a special film. Zhangke depicts the first and second acts with unhurried, leisurely pace, allowing his characters’ lives to fully reveal themselves on screen. It’s timeworn truth that, at least in books and movies, a beautiful heroine who chooses a wealthy industrialist man for a husband over some dirt-poor salt-of-the-earth will end up regrettably unhappy (yeah, I’m looking at your Batsheba). Mountains does exactly that, but this film is also concerned with how the consequences of the characters’ decisions play out over years, as human connection and communication disintegrate during this technological, financially-focused age.
As Tao, Zhao ravishes the screen, transforming naïve optimism into world-weary disappointment with impeccable nuances in between that whether she’s jauntily prancing between two would-be lovers or grieving family loss, she lights up every scene. Which means that when she’s off camera, the combined acting gravitas of her two male co-stars don’t measure up to Zhao’s consummate skills as an actor. The film’s third and weakest act relies heavily on nailing a message and thematically tying strings together, but above all, Zhao’s absence is deeply felt during this progression (despite giving us the veteran Sylvia Chang, creating subtle wonders from a little role).
Despite that, Zhangke manages to pull some sociological and philosophical resonance, as he typically achieves in his previous films. Here, an estranged mother awkwardly mistakes insisting codes of conduct with her son for communication, and later on in the film’s futuristic third act, a father mistakes Google translate as a mode of conversation, displaying a panoply of guns on a table as a blunt symbol for domestic power. Mountains May Depart is about, amongst other things, the mistakes we human beings commit and half-heartedly learn from until we actually consider the subsequent losses we suffer from the very decisions we make. Those who leave will eventually look back, and those who remain will long for something on the horizon. Zhangke, despite an uneven script, manages to beautifully summarise that in the film’s final frames, giving us a short glimpse of what seems to be the most profoundly devastating Pet Shop Boys’ Go West music video I’ve ever seen in my life.