PLEASE NOTE WE ARE AT THE GROSVENOR MUSEUM FOR THIS FILM.
This giddily ambitious new movie from the Chinese film-maker begins relatively conventionally, before spinning out into a commentary on globalisation and a glimpse of a bravura new world
Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is a mysterious and in its way staggeringly ambitious piece of work from a film-maker whose creativity is evolving before our eyes. It starts by resembling a classic studio picture from Hollywood, the sort of thing George Stevens or Douglas Sirk might have made, or perhaps something like Mu Fei’s Chinese classic Spring In A Small Town. Then it morphs into a futurist essay on China’s global diaspora and its dark destiny of emotional and cultural alienation. In this movie, the boundaries are getting pushed, visibly, between the opening and closing credits. The pure work-in-progress energy of all this is exhilarating, and if the resulting movie is flawed in its final act, then this is a flaw born of Jia’s heroic refusal to be content making the same sort of movie, and his insistence on trying to do something new with cinema and with storytelling.
His movie is split into three parts, taking place in 1999, in 2014 and in 2025. We begin with a bunch of people dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West, and as the new century and millennium dawns, the movie showsChina more or less obsessed with doing that: going West, embracing capitalism while at the same retaining the monolithic state structures of the past, and beginning to worship consumer goods as status symbols: stereos, cars, and perhaps most importantly mobile phones — a technology which the film shows retaining its fetishistic power for the next quarter-century.
Jia’s longtime collaborator and wife Zhao Tao gives a superb performance as Tao, a young woman who is dating a coal-miner Liang (Liang Jingdong). But Tao is also being courted by the impossibly conceited Jingsheng (Zhang Yi), one of China’s new breed of pushy entrepreneurs who actually buys the coalmine, forces Liang out of the picture, and marries Tao. They later have a child that Jingsheng in a grotesquely celebratory mood insists on naming “Dollar”, so great is his belief in the child symbolising a prosperous quasi-Western future. Meanwhile, the devastated Liang moves away but later in 2014, they are all to meet again and later in 2025, when Dollar is a twentysomething college dropout in Australia, his life appears to have absorbed a genetic destiny of alienation and pain.
Zhao Tao begins the movie as a girlish, ingenuous soul: always bouncing happily around, treating both her suitors with a kind of frank, sisterly affection while she internally ponders the question of love and marriage. When this becomes a more insistent reality, she appears to grow up emotionally on camera: deeply affected by how wounded Liang is by his romantic defeat. She becomes a beautiful, but melancholy woman in the light of her own marital disaster, and then her sadness assumes a tragic dimension in the wretchedness she experiences after her beloved father dies, and sees how her own son has been encouraged by her ex-husband to think of her feelings and her family as irrelevant. And finally all this is reconfigured in Jia’s almost sci-fi sketch of the future, incarnated in the form of Dollar who appears to have forgotten his mother and his mother country. But he experiences the return of the repressed.
It is extraordinary to think how Jia Zhangke’s film-making has changed since his early, more opaque movies like Platform (2000) or Unknown Pleasures (2002). Now the performances he is getting are far more emotionally demonstrative. This is not a violent movie like A Touch of Sin (2013), his satirical adventure in Tarantinoesque pulp: but it has a shockingly violent moment when someone gets punched in the face. Yet it also has a bewilderingly surreal moment when Tao witnesses a light aircraft crashing next the road down which she is walking, yet without reacting or calling for help. Did she dream it? Did Tao, in fact, dream the movie’s entire final Australian section? Jia allows us, fleetingly, to suspect this.
That final coda does not entirely work: inevitably, some of the dreamed-up technological innovations and stylings look self-conscious and the sheer weirdness means that the emotional power of ordinary life is no longer available. And yet without this unexpected leap into the future, the movie would not have the savour that it has. And what a wonderful performance from Zhao Tao.