I watched the Chinese movie “Mountains May Depart” (山河故人) as part of the ADIFF 2016. Jia Zhangke’s sweeping drama is set in China and Australia and takes place in three parts.
It begins in 1999 with a group of people dancing to “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, a song that resurfaces more than once in the movie, signifying a central theme. Liang (Liang Jingdong), Tao (Zhao Tao), and Jingsheng (Zhang Yi) are three fast friends. But things soon turn sour when it becomes clear that Liang and Jingsheng are both in love with Tao. Quiet, self-effacing Liang is soon forced out of the relationship by the aggressive, confident Jingsheng, as Tao agrees to marry him. Fast forward to 2014. Tao and Jingsheng are divorced, and they have a son named Dollar who lives with his father. Liang has a family of his own but he is sick and in dire need of money. Tao and Liang are brought together again but time has made it impossible for them to have a normal conversation. The third segment of the movie is set in 2025 and focuses mostly on Dollar’s life in Australia.
I liked the movie for its portrayal of change at different levels. We see a China that is rapidly transforming, spurred on by its determination to “go west” and be rich. Hardnosed businessman Jingsheng embodies this Chinese dream through his nouveau riche, brassy attitude. Traces of his once humble and friendly self can be seen initially, but only as a reminder of how people can change. Liang refuses to be swept up in this churn, and we see that (therefore?) he remains in poverty. Tao is the only one who perhaps straddles both change and a retention of her Self successfully. But at the same time, we see that becoming rich and embracing change does not necessarily make you completely happy. A lingering melancholy dictates her life as she goes through a divorce, and as a consequence, her son Dollar is taken away from her.
While part one and two revolve around the trio of Tao, Liang, and Jingsheng, part three is all about Dollar. Named by his father in his hubris-induced joy, Dollar grows up in Australia. We see him as a shy, slightly nervous youngster who rebels against his father. He cannot speak Chinese, and he is plagued by a listlessness that he attributes to not having a goal. He has a fling with his much older Chinese teacher, who probably, subconsciously, reminds him of his mother. He apparently doesn’t remember his mother or his one visit to her house years ago, but he remembers a song here, has a déjà vu there. Of course, Dollar is repression in its best form.
There are some things that remain unexplained – how is it that Dollar does not speak even a word of Chinese even though he has ample exposure to it? What happened to Liang? But then perhaps that’s how life is. Zhao Tao and Jingsheng are impressive in their restrained yet depictive performances. Theirs is a fine portrayal of the transformation of two young people with a few dreams to ones weighed down by the wrinkles of living.
I walked away from the theater with mixed feelings. I liked the snapshots of each character’s struggles and yet I felt there was something that could have made it better. But I would still say that “Mountains May Depart” is definitely worth a watch.
This review also appears in PureM online magazine.