Expectations of award-winning director Jia Zhangke are certainly high. Impressing critics both domestically and internationally, he has managed to avoid falling into the trap of losing Chinese credibility as he created films that appealed to Westerners.
Certainly, his previous film, A Touch of Sin, which touched on controversial social issues and simmering anger, resentment and violence, appealed to Western audiences. The fact it failed to gain approval to be shown in mainland theaters only added to its international luster.
His latest work Mountains May Depart (山河故人) at first glance seems international, with the final part of the film primarily taking place among English-speaking Chinese diaspora in Melbourne.
But make no mistake, this is a very Chinese film, but one that falls short of greatness.
The film begins in the small town of Fenyang, in Shanxi Province (the director’s hometown) in 1999. The audience is immediately presented with a love triangle. The sunny, singing and dancing Tao (涛), the closest thing the film has to a protagonist (and played by Jia Zhangke’s real life wife Zhao Tao), the simple down-to-earth miner Liangzi (梁子) and the brash, boastful Tuhao (nouveau riche) entrepreneur Zhang Jinsheng (张晋生). The film takes place in three acts—the first in 1999, the second in 2014, and the final leaping into the future in Australia in 2025.
(To digress for a moment, it’s also worth mentioning for non-Chinese speakers at this point, there are a few thematic elements in some of the Chinese script—the Chinese title of the film, 山河故人, basically translates to mountains, rivers, and old friends. This takes on added meaning when you realize that the name of one of the key characters, Zhang Jinsheng (张晋生), can be interpreted as ‘Shanxi born’. The significance of his son’s name, Zhang Daole (张到乐) is much more apparent in English with the English phonetic equivalent being “dollar”. Both can be interpreted as fairly blunt metaphors for the materialism that has gripped Shanxi).
The trio start out as friends, but with Liangzi and Zhang both vying for Tao’s affections, it doesn’t take long for the situation to come to a head. Although the audience is barracking for the good-natured Liangzi to win Tao’s heart, he never stood a chance against the bolder, cleverer, and immensely wealthier Zhang. Dirt poor and jobless, Liangzi leaves town, heartbroken. Tao marries Zhang, and the film becomes a study in the fallout from this decision, leaving the audience to mull over whether Tao made the right decision.
The scenes in Fenyang are deftly handled. Small touches, like miners praying to a Buddha before heading down the shafts, provide color both literally and figuratively amid the grey palette that obviously had to define the coal town. The characters’ interactions feel genuine, and the period is nicely encapsulated in the use of music, with Jia cited in media as saying that the music of the Pet Shop Boys, more specifically the song “Go West”, (again, a title with significance) spoke to a sense of optimism he felt in China at the time (with the track “Zhen Zhong” or “珍重” from Cantonese singer Sally Yeh, also known as Ye Qianwen, providing both mood and setting the period).
The film touches on a number of themes. The disparity in wealth between Zhang and Liangzi, combined with the bleak nature of the coal towns, is a stark reminder of how China’s rapid growth has not served everyone equally, even reaching into the romantic lives of the nation. The desire to escape it all and live somewhere else is explored as the film progresses, mirroring the large numbers of Chinese seeking lives in developed countries—though it also explores the sense of loss and anxiety that comes with it, with fears that culture and language will be lost (embodied in Dollar’s crippled interactions with a father who does not speak the same language).
Ultimately, it is this final part, in Australia, where the film falls down. One small nitpick is that the Chinese characters who have been raised in Melbourne with English as their first language lack any detectable Australian accent and instead sound like a non-native American (save for a brief scene with a cashier). This is forgivable, given that the film is very much focused on a somewhat insular Chinese community, cut off from home and also the local population. But what is less forgivable is any real sense of closure to the narrative, and a somewhat meandering plot that lacks the grounding provided by earlier character development—the new protagonists don’t quite carry it.
No doubt Jia intended that the film should not be tidied up neatly, as the characters are all trapped in profoundly unsatisfied lives and lack the possibility of emotional closure. But instead, the film just seems somewhat unfinished, despite a strong final scene. The movie itself tackles powerfully relevant subject matter for contemporary Chinese audiences, but falls just short of doing it justice.
Header image a screenshot of the film, via the Guardian