All of Jia Zhangke’s films ask this question, just with different pained inflections. His last, “A Touch of Sin” (2013), asked it with rage, using a series of true tabloid news stories to dramatize a society spinning into violent dysfunction.
By contrast, Jia’s new feature, “Mountains May Depart” — a Palme D’Or nominee at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — poses the question with epic melodramatic sadness. Spanning the past, present, and future as experienced by a handful of characters, the film sees globalization and China’s boom years leading to a country reduced to a wasteland and a people that have irrevocably lost their culture.
Yet so confident is this director’s touch that “Mountains May Depart” holds you with the humanity of its telling rather than the gloom of its conclusions. The film’s a triptych, with chapters unfolding in 1999, 2014, and 2025, the screen widening further with each era. In the early going, set in Shanxi province — Jia’s home turf and the setting of many of his movies — a naive local beauty, Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, the director’s wife and muse), is torn between two men, the poor but honest miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) and Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a swaggering up-and-comer who worships America, drives a hot red car, and is putting all his money in coal. It’s not much of a contest.
Tao’s idealism is keyed to two songs, the syrupy Sally Yeh Canto-pop hit “Take Care” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” which promises that the new generation will have a bright future “together.” These early scenes play like a high-fructose Hong Kong romantic drama with a seething undercurrent of social realism. No one but the director and the audience seem to realize that nature has already fled this industrialized landscape.
Tao marries Jinsheng and they have a son that he insists be named Dollar — Jia’s symbolism occasionally reaches out and clobbers us on the head. In the middle section, set in the modern day, the couple is divorced, and Jinsheng has relocated to Shanghai, leaving Tao to reconnect with an ailing Liangzi and with her own young son, who is being raised by his father as a global citizen. Cut to 2025, and Dollar (Dong Zijian) is a college student in Australia; he speaks only English and, with other children of the Chinese diaspora, is taking courses in his own culture from an older exile, Mia, played by the legendary Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang (“Eat Drink Man Woman”).
The teacher and student are drawn together by a shared sense of rootlessness; Dollar can communicate with his Mandarin-speaking father only through Google Translate. This final section of “Mountains May Depart” feels like its own movie and a nearly great one, drawing on filmmaking masters like Ozu and Resnais and hampered only by the younger actor’s rawness (Chang’s weathered movie-star grace compensates). Perhaps the greatest of China’s “Sixth Generation” filmmakers, Jia is in full command of his art here, and he uses the cinematic palette to muse on themes of freedom, ecocide, and the many ways a society and its leaders can sell their souls.
The movie sprawls, almost entirely in a good sense, and it lets the audience draw its own conclusions. None of them is likely to be rosy. Prepare to leave the theater with that Pet Shop Boys song lodged in your head, still promising a wonderful togetherness. By the final scenes, it sounds like mockery.
MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART
Written and directed by Jia Zhangke. Starring Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang. Brattle Theatre. 126 minutes. Unrated (as PG: brief language). In Mandarin, Shanxi dialect, and English, with subtitles.
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