For years, the director Jia Zhangke has portrayed the changing face of China, the way it both embraces and rejects modernity. He’s done this for so long that his films have now become a part of the very change he’s been exploring, going from the austere rigor of his early work (often the result of low budgets and production outside state-controlled channels) to the more extravagant, expansive style of his later films. But he’s never flinched from his big subject: the travails of a rapidly transforming nation and the individuals caught up in it. Thus, every Jia film feels enormously consequential — a grand statement — but he also demonstrates control and playfulness. You never feel like you’re being fed medicine or taught a lesson. He builds modest monuments.
Jia’s occasionally marvelous new monument Mountains May Depart opens on New Year’s Eve 1999, as a camera cranes in on a group of happy villagers dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Go West.” It’s a big year for China — they’ll be getting Macau back from Portugal later that year, and they already seem to understand that the new century will be theirs. The setting, as in many of the director’s previous films, is Jia’s own northern hometown of Fenyang. The culture clash of a changing country is laid bare in the central love triangle, as lovely, bright-eyed dance instructor and shop girl Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, the director’s longtime collaborator) is wooed by two friends from different sides of the tracks. Zhang (Zhang Yi) is a slightly dopey but confident young capitalist who has just bought the coal mine where his fellow suitor, the quiet and deferential Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), works. Zhang even offers Liangzi a job helping him run the mine — in exchange for the latter’s ceding Tao to him. Liangzi refuses, mainly because Tao isn’t his to give; the girl sees both men as dear friends, and shares everything with them.
At this point, Jia’s style seems to shift, ever so slightly, as the once-awkward Zhang starts to adopt the postures of a moody romantic; he glowers, he stares, he broods, he tells Tao that she’s hurting him, because he cares so much for her. The Canto-pop on the soundtrack gives way to throbbing techno and club scenes. It’s as if the very texture of the film is changing along with the country itself, becoming ever more unpredictable. (At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, a plane falls from the sky, with what appears to be little narrative consequence.) And the film accelerates, too: Before we know it, Zhang and Tao are getting married and having a child, as the years start to fall away.
Mountains May Depart is both highly structured and purposefully erratic. Time passes with little montages of archival footage, but the three main sections of the film take place in 1999, 2014, and (!) 2025. Hilariously, the opening credits appear about 40 minutes into the film, right as we enter 2014 and find Liangzi again. He’s got a young wife and child, but he’s horrifically ill from a life spent in the mines. Meanwhile, Zhang and Tao have split up, with Zhang, who has become richer and more powerful, getting custody of their son Daoleh (or “Dollar”). When Dollar comes for a brief visit with Mom, we see the chasm between them. Though she now lives in comfort and class, Tao remains bound to the small-town traditions of the world she left behind, while her son is caught up in the high-flying, Westernized world of his father’s life in Shanghai — one of fancy boats and planes and hobnobbing with NBA stars. It doesn’t matter who you are, Jia seems to say, the world will eventually leave you behind.
The final movement of the film seems to bear that out. It takes place in Melbourne, in 2025. Tao and Liangzi are nowhere to be seen, for the most part. The film focuses on a grown-up Dollar as he takes Chinese classes from a divorced teacher (Sylvia Chang) and contends with his wealthy father’s ever-increasing hostility and fear. Once a paragon of modernity and capitalism — an “elite,” as Liangzi jokingly called him — Zhang himself now seems alienated from those around him, clinging to what little he has left from his former life; at one point, he chastises Dollar for not speaking Chinese with him. Meanwhile, however, Dollar has started to become curious about the culture he left behind. But it’s his mother’s world he’s interested in, not his father’s, suggesting that change is cyclical, not linear.
Jia’s filmmaking is smooth, but again, his style shifts subtly. There’s something reserved about this final section, with its, sunny, tech-enabled, but stultifying future. The first half of the film had firecrackers and dynamite and exploding planes; these later scenes have the unfired, ever-present guns and rifles that an increasingly paranoid Zhang leaves lying around the house. The pop-pop-pop of a rapidly changing country has given way to a tense hangover of rootlessness, resentment, and fear. If these later scenes feel more controlled, maybe even airless, it might be because after looking at his characters through a magnifying lens, director Jia has now begun to look through a telescope: They seem less like individuals and more like symbols. And purposefully so. Mountains May Depart may have started off as a look back, maybe even a diagnosis, but it ends as a prophecy.