Actress Zhao Tao and director Jia Zhang-ke at Cannes 2015
Actress Zhao Tao
Director Jia Zhang-ke
MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (Shan he gu ren) A
China France Japan (131 mi) 2015 d: Jia Zhang-ke
China France Japan (131 mi) 2015 d: Jia Zhang-ke
Life does repeat itself. That’s why it feels… familiar. —Dollar (Dong Zijian)
The ambitious nature of this filmmaker just continues to keep growing, where he already ranks as one of the top filmmakers in the world today, but he also carries the mantle of being a Chinese spokesperson during a rapidly developing period of change in China, which is precisely what this film is about. While the Communist Party continues to hold the reigns of political power in China since driving Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party off the mainland to Taiwan in 1949, the repressive effects of single party rule have dominated the history of both nations since World War II. While a pro-democracy movement effectively ended in a massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, snuffing out any thoughts of freedom, it also coincided with an admission that all efforts to save socialism had failed, requiring a new approach, symbolized by Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, where China has been trending to a capitalist market economy since the end of the 90’s, even joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. While the Party has distanced itself from radical ideology, there are fewer charismatic leaders, but the government has not come to terms with or prepared itself for a new political reality. The past 30 years have brought enormous changes to China, shifting from an agriculture driven to an industrialized society, causing widespread soil contamination, along with the toxic effects of electronic waste, water and air pollution. Rapid economic advancement with unchanged politics offers the perception of a State-led market economy while continuing to maintain authoritarian rule, leaving one to wonder whether this model is sustainable. While China has become a highly successful international trading partner, where a thoroughly modernized showcase city like Shanghai is the largest free-trade zone in mainland China, the nation as a whole still lacks free market ideas, yet China is on the verge of becoming or has already surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest economy. With this comes additional responsibilities, where a prominent international artist like Jia Zhang-ke becomes a visionary spokesperson not just for China, but for the world. While his previous film 2013 Top Ten List #3 A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) offered scathing criticism, angrily charting the effects of dehumanization associated with economic prosperity, this is a more intimate and sympathetic film, showing the haunting effects of lost culture and heritage on a single family, sacrificed in the name of economic success, for what is perceived as a greater good. However, like something seen in Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) or Rithy Panh’s 2013 Top Ten List #1 The Missing Picture (L'image manquante) , the connection to not only one’s history and culture, but even one’s family can be wiped out in a single generation (like the current flood of refugees escaping into Europe at the moment), leaving in its wake a lost generation of rootless and exiled people, estranged from their own identity.
There was a certain amount of apprehension reported when a Chinese Film Bureau censorship logo was tagged onto the opening at the Cannes premiere, but the emotional depth exhibited throughout is breathtaking, given a novelesque narrative structure that thrives on well written and well defined characters. Much like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THREE TIMES (2005), the film is divided into three historical sections, 1999, 2014, and 2025, which has a way of examining the downside of economic prosperity, revealing how time wreaks havoc on a single family. The centerpiece of the film is the remarkable performance by actress Zhao Tao, arguably the greatest in her entire career, as she literally dominates this film from the opening shot. Brimming with the nationalistic optimism and confidence of the new millennium in 1999, much like the opening scenes in the 80’s from Jia’s PLATFORM (2000), a theatrical dance troupe performs an exhilarating anthem-like Chinese dance routine to the buoyant sounds of “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, Pet Shop Boys - Go West [HD] - YouTube (4:53), where front and center is Zhao Tao as a youthful Tao, a dance instructor in the small town of Fenyang (the filmmaker’s hometown), looking to the future exhibiting an infectious happiness. While the color red has not been captured with this degree of rapturous beauty since the May Day parade in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977), it’s also shot in a boxed, TV sized 4:3 ratio, cramming plenty of colorful spectacle into a smaller space, expanding ever wider with each different historical period. The lush colors on display, however, captured by cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai, are simply amazing, literally leaping off the screen. Surrounded by two suitors constantly at her side, coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a longtime childhood friend and business entrepreneur Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a burgeoning capitalist, it grows into a standoff between the egos of the two men, who eventually come to despise one another, leaving Tao crushed with disappointment. But it’s fun while it lasts, evidenced by a few carefree moments, but also a scene that targets the mindset of each character, where Tao is impressed by the romantic melody of an old 1990 Hong Kong pop ballad a customer plays in her corner store, 珍重 Take Care by Sally Yeh (beautifully contrasted with the Pet Shop Boys), in between sharing noodles with Liangzi, while just to impress her, Zhang buys the disc off the customer once they’ve left the store, returning it to Tao as a token of his affection. The problem with Zhang is he’s always much more interested in promoting himself, continually using money to impress others, or in this case buy happiness, as Tao eventually picks Zhang. Liangzi leaves town on the spot, vowing never to return.
Tao’s shortsightedness comes back to haunt her, though she made what felt like the best choice, an indication of how one decision can change the rest of your life, becoming an allegory about China and its future, as by the next segment the happy couple (who we never see together) is already divorced, where she remains in Fenyang, while Zhang is living with another woman in the opulence of Shanghai, having gained custody of their only son, who he’s ironically named “Dollar.” This mid-section may be the most poignant, especially the toll it takes on Tao, as she believes in her heart that her son will be better off with Zhang simply because he’ll have more opportunities, where the film borders on melodrama, but remains too well written, where she is a woman in constant search of herself, becoming an epic love story that is defined by the absence of love. The centerpiece of this section is the death of Tao’s aging father, which has a huge impact in her life. Sending for her son, who’s only about seven, he doesn’t really even recognize her, and is confused what to call her, but dutifully carries out his instructions, which his other Mom provides during their daily skype sessions, also sending photos of a home they are planning to move to in Australia. Infuriated by this unwanted intervention, Tao tries to share a few moments with her son, including a traumatizing but supremely colorful funeral service, where religious rituals are a source of cultural heritage, yet when displayed so reverently through cinema, they become time capsules of a specific era. Afterwards, taking the slow train (Dollar is used to the fast train) so they’ll have more time together, Tao tries to instill a sense of motherly devotion, handing him the keys to their home, but this kid has everything given to him, who seemingly lacks for nothing, where this entire trip is barely a blip on the radar. Simultaneous to these events, Liangzi has wandered around like a nomad, still working in the mines, where he eventually marries and has a son, but his years in the mines have damaged his lungs, where death appears imminent without expensive medical treatment. Like a returning ghost, they arrive at his old doorstep, still locked and left as it was from the day he left. Unable to reach out for help himself, it’s his wife that turns to Tao for money, which she willingly provides, surprised to see her old friend. The prominent theme of death in this section announces the end of the old, while the new generation faces an uncertain future. Amusingly, as if to suggest not everything changes, there are recurring shots of a small child carrying a traditional spear (Guangdong Broadsword), seen again having aged in each subsequent section carrying that same spear. This is reminiscent of a similar image in Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89) where a silent character is seen carrying a kayak on his back and continually reappears in most segments, always remaining wordless, where he bears witness to how people are living their lives, like a reflection of moral conscience.
The final segment is easily the most strange, an unexpected leap into the future, becoming an awkward experience for many viewers, especially the Chinese, as the language spoken is mostly English. A similar experience occurred with Edward Yang’s MAHJONG (1996), which also mixes global languages of English, French, and Chinese, where the English-speaking and noticeably poor acting from the English language actors was significantly off-putting, as it initially feels here, where Dollar (Dong Zijian) is a young university student in Australia who speaks exclusively English, who has to take Chinese classes to learn about his own heritage. Legendary Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang, last seen five years ago in Buddha Mountain (Guan yin shan) (2011), appears as the Chinese college instructor named Mia, providing plenty of worldly character in the role. Dollar is trying to exert his own independence from his jaded father while Mia, an exile of Hong Kong by way of Toronto, is navigating her way through a particularly nasty divorce. What stands out in this section is Dollar has completely forgotten how to speak Mandarin Chinese, where he requires the translation services of Mia to have a conversation with his own father. Making matters worse, he’s lost all connections with his mother, where the luxury of his lifestyle has created a mindset that allows him to live only in the present, with no need to revisit the past, even for family occasions. Lost in all this futuristic speculation is the presence of Tao, who is the backbone of this film. Her absence explains the awkwardness of the future, which accentuates the feeling of displacement. Having no one else to turn to, Mia and Dollar are drawn to each other for emotional support, which presents its own problems, as he’s easily mistaken for her own son. Throughout it all, however, Tao’s looming presence in the Australia sequence remains of critical importance, showing the significance of distance not only as geography, but an emotional upheaval, becoming an internalized trauma that expresses itself in unfamiliar ways, where her absence in the final section is perhaps the strongest and most haunting aspect of the film, giving it the feel of a ghost story. Arguably the director's most intimate and personalized film, equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking, with recurring musical refrains from Yoshihiro Hanno that return like the changing of the seasons, the music adds poetic resonance to the emotional weight of the film. The real triumph, however, is the fullness of Tao’s character, where it’s no accident that she gets the final shot, where her indomitable spirit continues to soar. Jia remains the most astute chronicler of changing times in Chinese society, where despite whatever critical qualms one has with his multitude of choices, he remains an artist at the top of his game, a superb master craftsman, resorting to almost literary measures to explore the ramifications of the past on the present, cautioning us not to be so quick to tear down the relics of the past in our zeal to build something new, but to recognize the inherent value of cultural heritage (the exact opposite of ISIL’s intentions in the Middle East, which is to completely wipe out the past), adding a somber note on the theme of historical forgetfulness, carefully revealing how economic and cultural forces continue to impact upon our lives, whether we realize it or not.