Director/writer Jia Zhangke would have told a very compelling story of the changes going on in China had his film, “Mountains May Depart,” simply focused on the years 1999 and the present. But the director takes the story an intriguing step further by looking at how much change will occur by the year 2025.
The glimpse into the future emphasizes how quickly life is changing in China.
At the center of this tale is Tao (Shen Tao), a young woman with an unwavering optimism. Her endless positive attitude catches the attention of two very different suitors. The endlessly joyful Tao is torn between the coal miner she’s loved for years and the business entrepreneur who offers her the world.
The courtship is interesting but not as compelling as what is going on culturally. Zhangke shows how the boom in the Chinese economy has created a new passion for materialism that trumps even the most sacred traditions. The director doesn’t suggest that this is a clash of the past and the future; rather, that the new thinking is completely stomping the life out of the old ways.
This continues to the present where the focus becomes the broadening gap between the people who have everything and those who have nothing. This broad look at social and cultural change switches from Tao to Zhang (Zijan Dong), the son Tao lost in a divorce battle. Zhang grew up in Australia and is even more detached from the ways of the past.
Zhangke uses Zhang in the 2025 part of the film to add an exclamation point to his look at how quickly China is changing. Zhang speaks no Chinese and is more familiar with pop culture than his family’s traditions.
Zhang’s story takes a turn as he falls for one of his teachers. The relationship between the pair is not so much a look at romance between a young man and older woman but an emphasis on how much has changed in the country. The teacher understands the importance of family, pushing Zhang to travel to China to see his mother. The young man has been so changed that he’s no longer moved by a respect for his elders but would rather focus on himself.
The director uses Zhang’s story in the near future as a reminder of where China is headed. Whether the country gets there will depend on what happens today.
“Mountains May Depart” is not structured like an American film. There are characters who are dropped and the conclusion is vague. That the elements aren’t played out fully works in this case because the film is not a love story set against the changing Chinese culture, but a broad examination of the changing lifestyles in China played out against a love story.
If you need everything to be wrapped up perfectly, then “Mountains May Depart” will leave you feeling let down. This is a story about how life is changing in China at such a rapid rate that there’s not always time to pay attention to every detail in the journey.
It is easy to see why “Mountains May Depart” was a candidate for the Palme d’Orat the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
The film is in Cantonese, Mandarin and English with English subtitles.