Mountains May Depart
Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed by Jia Zhangke, Xstream Pictures, Shanghai Film Group, MK2
China, 2015, 131 minutes
Mandarin Chinese, subtitles in English
Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival 2015
In the sphere of international film, Jia Zhangke, is a key player that’s putting China on the map. As a part of the “Sixth Generation” of film directors in China, this group has left behind the epic tales of mythical history and instead, focuses their efforts on capturing the raw realities of today’s China. For Jia, this means that films are more than just ways to tell stories. He carefully uses his craft as a vehicle to commentate on contemporary Chinese society.
In his latest film, Mountains May Depart, Jia once again sets the stage in his hometown of Fenyang in Shanxi province, China. The story begins with a love triangle set in 1999. Tao (played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao), a young beauty in her 20s has caught the eye of the rich but temperamental young businessman, Jinsheng, but is also being pursued by her loyal coal-miner friend, Liangzi. Against her better judgment, she chooses the former, and soon after gives birth to their son, Dollar.
Here, around 45 minutes in, is when we see the film’s title card. It’s a bold move for Jia, writer and director of the film, one that almost allows the full-length feature to be split into two independent short films. Only at this moment does the audience realize how engrossed they’ve become in the story and its characters and yet, it is only the beginning.
Fast forward to 2014. Tao is now divorced, and Dollar lives with his father and his new wife in Shanghai. Her relationship with her son is distant, awkward, and only stands to worsen as Jinsheng plans to emigrate to Australia.
Fast forward again to 2025. Dollar, having grown up in Australia and lost his Chinese cultural roots, is now in college with a muddled concept of family, identity, and relationships. From here, we’re taken through a rather bumpy third act leading to a redeeming and graceful close.
As the film has done well in the festival circuit, much has been said, and can be said about it. But beyond the technical details and artistic choices, Jia brings our attention to three things:
Progress at a price
Jia, with the help of brilliant performances by each of the central characters, does a meticulous job of painting the subtle cultural nuances of modern China—the innocence and confusion in coming of age, falling in love and the struggle of expression, losing face in the search for help, anger and hopelessness between cross-cultural parents and children. All of this is magnified on the backdrop of a country that has urbanized and globalized too quickly for its people to properly keep up.
In the last 20 years, the changes in Chinese society have instilled a new value system. People believe that financial currency goes further than emotional connection, so all of their energy and time is put into the accumulation of economic wealth, and they forget about what’s really important. – Jia Zhangke
The impact of the Cultural Revolution
Despite the years of cultural reform in the subsequent decades, we lacked any established language to represent our innermost feelings—the Cultural Revolution had wiped that away and left a void where there used to be self-expression. – Jia Zhangke
In line with this point, Wei Zhou, in his article, “Families, Churches, and China’s Transition”, found in the latest ChinaSource Quarterly, discusses why the Cultural Revolution was so damaging to the family unit. It distorted proper roles and expectations, leaving generations to come in a heap of dysfunction.
Following the life of Dollar throughout the film, it is evident the impact that his upbringing has on his life. In the search for love and acceptance, he is left empty-handed, without examples and guidance to making healthy relational decisions.
The impact of migration
Most families emigrate to gain a better life, opportunity, etc. but what is lost often goes unnoticed, until it’s too late.
Referring to the realities of migration and the resulting loss of native language over generations, Jia says:
Behind these issues of language, there is a disappearance of tradition, culture, and individuality. I fear this existential crisis arising from these issues of language—separating us from one another geographically and emotionally—is becoming more common in China now more than ever.
Dollar’s third-culture-kid identity is one that not only resonates with emigrating families from China but to every diaspora Chinese, myself included. Even with the best efforts to retain language, food, and tradition, our cultural values inevitably become diluted, bringing about tension in communication, lifestyle, and overall family harmony—the cost for a “better life.”
As Christians, believing that the family unit is a God-given structure, seeing such dysfunction becoming the norm is all the more heartbreaking. It is clear how much Christ is needed to redeem that which seems irreparable.
Mountains May Depart, is a work that is both big and small. Jia brings you into the intricacies of his characters, while challenging you to think big about society and human relationships at large and to take a hard look at what our environment is making of us. He brilliantly holds his audience between this strong but delicate tension from beginning to end, leaving viewers satisfied but hoping for more.
Quotes of Jia Zhangke are from “Interview: Jia Zhang-ke” by Aliza Ma, on filmcomment, Film Society of Lincoln Center, January 4, 2016, http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-jia-zhang-ke-mountains-may-depart/.