Film review: Mountains May Depart – Jia Zhangke takes a leap from China’s capitalist present

Poignant tale of life, love and regret in decades-spanning story of Chinese diaspora

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 8:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 12:42pm

A woman makes a clumsy romantic decision amid China’s capitalist boom and then lives through its consequences in this decades-spanning new film by Jia Zhangke. The three-part relationship drama is notably capped by a parable – either confidently prophetic or way too heavy-handed, depending on one’s perspective – that envisages the limits of personal freedom and the emotional stasis that the country’s growing diaspora is set to evoke in a near-future.

Mountains May Depart opens in 1999 Fenyang – Jia’s hometown in Shanxi and the setting of his early films – when dance instructor Tao (Jia regular Zhao Tao) is courted by the conceited entrepreneur Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and the reticent coal-miner Liangzi (Liang Jingdong). Tao’s choice for a spouse is revisited in the 2014-set middle section, where the now-divorced career woman is beset with regret after learning of the ill health of the man she turned down.

Marking the auteur’s first venture outside China after chronicling its dramatic identity shift in his brief but essential oeuvre, the melancholic film concludes with a peculiarly conceived final episode, set in 2025 Australia. Here, Tao’s estranged young son from her short-lived marriage, Dollar (Dong Zijian), is left to make sense of his Chinese roots through a romance with his significantly older college professor, the Hong Kong emigrant Mia (Sylvia Chang Ai-chia).

Anchored by a quietly devastating turn by Zhao, the film is at its most poignant when it observes the palpable feelings – about her regrettable marriage, the non-relationship with her son and the loneliness of growing old without family – that are running through her character. Mountains May Depart then reaches an ironically graceful note when Tao finally dances to the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West again: it has been a long and bumpy ride for the Chinese capitalists.

Mountains May Depart opens on November 5