Pet Shop Boys' rousing anthem "Go West" plays over the beginning and ending sequences in Jia Zhang-ke's Mountains May Depart. It's a strangely perfect music choice for a beguiling decade-spanning drama infused with the contradiction inherent to fading memory. Lyrics like, "Together, your hand in my hand...Together, we will make our plan" initially complement the rosy nationalist picture of China's recent global success. But eventually these words take on an ironic quality, contrasting greatly with the sobering reality of forlorn characters set adrift by selfishness and time.
Shot in three different aspect ratios and taking place in 1999, 2014 and 2025 respectively, Jia's triptych examines China's transition into the 21st century by way of a small town love triangle. The first segment centers on Tao (Zhao Tao) as she prepares for the New Year celebration in Fenyang. Fireworks scurry and scream into the sky, while large crowds gather to celebrate the possibility of what lies ahead. Vying for her affection are two very different young men. Arrogant and insecure businessman Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) has wealth and community stature, while coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jingdong) rides on the laurels of hard work and character.
Both suitors represent aspects of China's formidable past and potential future.
Tao's eventual choice in marriage creates narrative vibrations that ripple throughout the rest of the film. Recurring symbolic images express the passage of time in subtle ways, while Jia delicately handles the inevitability of decay and regret. It all culminates in a clunky third chapter set in Australia that speaks to China's increasing disconnect with its own heritage and culture.
Jia has known to experiment with narrative structure before. A Touch of Sin splits into four disparate genre parts that loosely overlap, while Still Life plays with time and perspective as two love stories unfold in the same sprawling city destined to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam project. At first, Mountains May Depart might seem more linear and traditional by comparison. It does clearly adhere to the cause and effect of bad decisions. Yet there's a sense that the plot itself matters far less than the feelings of those people experiencing it, which are always in flux.
The melodramatic undercurrents eventually spill out into the foreground during the film's final act. Tao's grown son Dollar (Dong Zijian), now comfortably displaced with his father in Melbourne, begins a love affair with his college professor (Sylvia Chang), herself an ex-pat from Hong Kong. Their misguided tryst is supposed to be a reaction to China's increasing transnationalism, but it's tonally at odds with the rest of the film. The sappy dialogue is especially uncharacteristic of Jia's best work.
Still, this portion is critical to the film's overall impact. One could argue that the plasticity and listlessness of Dollar's experiences are byproducts of the growing freedom his parents were afforded by the emergence of increasing opportunity. Without any sense of national origin and family heritage, he's left without an identity and cultural compass. These themes are overtly stated but are nonetheless essential to the film's ambitious assessment of China's shift from Communist principles to capitalist-driven individualism.
Jia ultimately believes that China's future may be clarified through endurance, wisdom and a resilient connection with the past. Tao ultimately embodies this dynamic combination. Mountains May Depart, which opens Friday, April 1, at the Digital Gym Cinema, respects many lives she's led, and the many she failed to. Despite the film's focus on yearning and separation, it expresses a belief that all aspects of Chinese life can be aligned yet again, like a perfect dance routine choreographed to the right song. In a world where a son's whisper to his mother can travel thousands of miles in a second, anything is possible.