Zhao Tao shines in this decades-spanning drama that ultimately falls victim to its own ambition.
Mountains May Depart
I find myself drawn to films with ambitious timelines—those that span not weeks or months or even years, but decades—and over the past few years, there have been some terrific Asian films that have been so ambitious; Kongkiat Khomsiri’s The Gangster, taking place in the 1950s and 1960s; Jing Wong’s The Last Tycoon, spanning from the 1910s to the 1940s; and, to a lesser extent, Choi Dong-hoon’s Assassination, which ranges from the early 1910s to the late 1940s. This year, another decades-spanning entry arrives from Asia: Mountains May Depart, an ambitious Chinese drama from legendary filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke.
And Mountains May Depart isn’t just ambitious in terms of the timeline it travels and the arcs its characters take; it’s ambitious in how it’s presented by writer/director Jia. Rather than offer a traditional three-act, 131-minute film that spans 25+ years, Jia divides the film into three independent yet critically interconnected parts.
The first part opens in 1999 and covers about a 7-year period (other than the title card revealing the year, no other date information is available, so guessing needs to be done based on other clues). Tao (Zhao Tao), Zhang (Zhang Yi), and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) are the three players in the film’s love triangle that begins here, as China and the rest of the world are on the brink of a new millennium. Zhang’s businessman-on-the-verge-of-wealth and Liangzi’s miner-on-the-verge-of-unemployment represent the growing economic divide in the country, with Tao torn between the traditions of the old (Liangzi) and the excitement of the new (Zhang). Even the hostility the men have for one another seem to reflect a have vs. have-not mentality. Jia’s lingering, observational directorial style flourishes here.
Tao remains reluctant about which man she prefers, but coal mine worker Liangzi is no match for rich businessman Zhang, and eventually the man with the money gets the girl (and goes so far as to buy the coal mine and fire Liangzi). Tao and Zhang eventually marry and have a son, but all is not sunshine and roses. The second part opens in 2014. Tao and Zhang are divorced with the latter having won custody of their son Dollar.
The second part opens in 2014. Tao and Zhang are divorced with the latter having won custody of their son, Dollar. Liangzi, now married and with a child of his own, suffers from cancer, the byproduct of a lifetime of breathing coal dust. When a family emergency arises, Zhang flies Dollar to be with his mother, but the young boy has no real maternal connection to her. It’s during this part that the film begins to unravel a little. The 1999 section was drenched in rich, meaningful drama. In the 2014 chapter, the tenor shifts to something more melodramatic with the presentation of Tao’s seemingly endless trouble with men. One former love has divorced her, another former love is dying, her son is a stranger to her, and then there is that family emergency. Tack on Zhang’s plan to westernize his and his son’s names and move to Australia to make even more money (a plan overheard by Tao while Dollar is Skyping with his stepmom) and it starts to become too much. Tao’s moments with Liangzi are divine, and her struggle to connect with her son is real, but the periphery begins to intrude.
The final section, which takes place in 2025, finds Dollar as an English-speaking college student with a fractured relationship with his father, almost no memory of his mother, and a blossoming romance with someone his mother’s age (Sylvia Chang). This section struggles throughout its duration, partly because of how Dollar’s relationship with his father strains credulity. It isn’t that the conflict between upstart sons and failed fathers isn’t possible, it’s that despite living together for Dollar’s entire life, the son has picked up no Chinese and the father knows no English (and nothing is suggested to indicate a refusal to speak the languages on either part). That Zhang has a gun fetish to the tune of handguns and ammunition just lying around the house feels inserted for shock value, and Dollar’s attraction to a mother-figure is terribly cliché. It’s the shortest segment of the three, but it’s the last one, and it doesn’t close the film well at all.
Jia also takes an artistic chance with this film. The 1999 segment is shot in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the 2014 segment widens to 1.85:1, and the 2025 piece opens even wider with 2.35:1. It feels like it’s trying to be some kind of visual commentary on past/present/future, but aspect ratios alone simply can’t do that, especially when the period of time presented is only 26 modern years. The aesthetic of Nelson Lik-wai Yu’s cinematography from section to section is terrific—a muted past, a rich present, a shallow future—but the presentation itself does nothing for the film.
The core cast, however, is solid. Zhang plays the budding entrepreneur with the right amount of swagger, and Liang is excellent as the blue-collar hero with hope for romance. But this film belongs to Zhao Tao, and it’s a better film for having her in it. Her range and nuance are really something, whether it’s playing the love-torn ingenue, the regretful divorcee faced with the mortality of a past love, or the mother who is ultimately childless in everything but name. It’s impossible not to look at her and feel everything she’s feeling.
By establishing a love triangle and injecting conflict via the socio-economic divide between its two male protagonists, and then using that to represent the growing chasm between the old China settled in the east and the new China running towards the west, Jia Zhang-Ke opens his story with great strength. But the inflamed melodrama that dominates the tale as time marches towards the future only weakens the film, creating a desire to return to the better past.