Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren)
China (2015) Dir. Jia Zhangke
Can chasing the almighty dollar bring true satisfaction? Jia Zhangke, renowned chronicler of the shift towards capitalism in China, once again takes this as one of the themes of his latest work, a multi-decade spanning tale of one family’s experience with wealth.
Split into three parts, the first is set in 1999 and introduces us to the key players of this tale – Shen Tao (Zhao Tao), Zhang Jingsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liang Jangjung (Liang Jin Dong). All in their early 20’s, Tao is a singer and dance teacher being courted by childhood friend Liang, a humble coal miner while flash capitalist Zhang also has his eye on Tao.
Despite his arrogance and bullying ways towards Liang – Zhang buys the mine and sacks Liang – Tao marries Zhang, causing a defeated Liang to pack up and leave Fenyang to find work at a mine in another province, deliberately missing the wedding. A few months later, Tao gives birth to a son which Zhang names “Dollar”.
It’s now 2014 and upon returning to Fenyang, now with a wife and young daughter in tow, Liang learns that Tao and Zhang have divorced and while Zhang is living a life of luxury in Shanghai with his new wife and Dollar, Tao runs a small petrol station. Liang is in ill health and needs money for treatment but is broke, so his wife asks Tao for a loan.
Meanwhile when Tao’s father dies she calls for Dollar (Zishan Rong) to attend the funeral but she barely recognises her now privileged son, showing no warmth or attempts to connect with neither his mother, nor any understanding or respect for the provincial traditions. When they do eventually bond it is too late, occurring on the day Dollar has to fly home.
Finally, we shift to Australia in 2025 where Zhang, now rechristened Pete, lives as a retiree having left China after anti-corruption laws were tightened. Dollar (Dong Zijian), now 18, is a student with no direction or ambition, only speaking English and showing no interest in his Chinese heritage – certainly he has all but forgotten about his mother.
Unable to relate to his father Dollar finds himself drawn to his college professor Mia (Sylvia Chang), also a Chinese émigré. They begin a relationship in which Mia fills the gap of Tao as a mother figure for Dollar and as a go-between in trying to communicate with his father who only speaks Mandarin and is appalled at his son’s distance from his Chinese roots.
Zhangke employs an interesting gimmick to reflect the changes of the period with a different picture ratio for each segment; 1999 is presented in 4:3, 2014 in anamorphic widescreen (16:9) and finally 2025 is in 2.35:1 (letterbox) widescreen. In some hands this would be seen as pretentious but the gradual widening of the picture is symbolic of China’s expansion as a global economy across this time span
The relevance of this might slip past untrained eyes, as might the satirical use of the Pet Shop Boy’s cover of the Village People’s hit Go West which opens and closes the film, a not so subtle suggestion by Zhangke is where he feels China is heading. Despite once being married, Zhang and Tao eventually represent both sides of this notion, while Dollar is caught between the two.
Liang’s impoverished status and declining health after years in the mines as depicted in the 2014 thread, is a stark proposition of what Tao’s life might have been had she not chosen Zhang. It is as if Zhangke is championing the very idea he seems to be challenging, that wealth automatically equates to a better life, but of course the third act is where he posits his idea that money is no substitute for national identity.
In Australia, Pete is pretty much a prisoner of his own freedom: unable to speak English and nothing to do with plenty of time to do it in. Zhangke has created a sterile and soulless world for Pete to exist in, the beachside property overlooking an expanse of sand and open water but offers no direction to point towards.
The Oedipus relationship between Dollar and Mia is the oddest development in the entire film, a borderline fantasy diversion from the realities of the situation Dollar is running from. However the film’s coda then plants the idea that perhaps it was a fantasy after all, but not Dollar’s. This is the only section not to feature Liang, whose fate is left undetermined.
Of the three segments this is the weakest not just because of this subversive ambiguity but also due to the Chinese cast appearing uncomfortable with speaking in English (the lack of subtitles makes it difficult to understand them). Yet the widening gap between father and son, the new way versus the old traditions and the dissolving connection to their Chinese roots make this the most cynical and fearful, perhaps also overly dramatic to western eyes.
Zhangke may view his country through a cynical eye yet wraps everything up in an enigmatic package that straddles the line between obtuse arthouse and poignant social drama. At 126 minutes many moments of quotidian longueurs could have been excised to make things a bit tighter, but with a pervasive mood of melancholy and introspection, this helps make the experience more palpable.
Sticking to the tried and tested formula of casting his wife in the lead role, Zhao Tao does Zhangze proud with another stellar performance, effortlessly essaying the changes in Tao. In support, Liang Jin Dong provides the quiet dignity to his portrayal as Liang while Zhang Yi is effectively smarmy and dislikeable as Zhang.
Mountains May Depart is an artistically ambitious film that is two thirds great and one third below par. A socially conscious dissertation driven by a trenchant cause for concern, this won’t win Zhangze any new fans but his existing followers will find much to ponder and engage with here.