Mountains May Depart

 

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China’s Jia Zhangke offers a bizarre triptych that flounders.

 
Mountains May Depart

  

This is a film in three parts set in 1999, 2014 and 2025 respectively and one of its oddities lies in the fact that the title only comes up at the end of the first part which is far too long to be considered a natural preface. Equally unexpected is the fact that the final segment is set in the future even though there is no sci-fi element of any kind to explain that choice.

 

If such details suggest that Mountains May Depart is a strange film, they do not mislead. Written and directed by the noted Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, this is a work that suffers from weaknesses in its construction. The three sections are too closely linked to be regarded as distinct tales but lack the smooth flow of a single narrative spread over time. The opening segment involves us in romantic rivalry as the well-off Zhang (Zhang Yi) and the coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jingdong) compete for the affections of Tao (Zhao Tao). Despite including a few stylised semi-abstract images that will appear throughout without explanation, this section is well acted and consequently it draws us in from the start. That Tao should choose Zhang in preference to Liangzi will dismay audiences in much the same way as it displeases her father. That would be fair enough but for the fact that before the wedding takes place Tao, who does not appear to be motivated by a desire for riches, discovers that Zhang is seriously contemplating the possibility of killing his rival. Inexplicably this does not appear to perturb Tao at all. Consequently Liangzi, who will move away at the end of this first section, is the character who most concerns us and we do indeed proceed to pick up on him fifteen years later, by which time he is married and a father. Nevertheless, he is then virtually cast side by the film as Tao becomes the central figure of Part 2. We find that she is divorced and the emphasis is accordingly on her relationships with her father and with her young son, Dollar. She can be harsher to the boy than we would expect and seems strangely resigned to Zhang, who has custody of him, planning it take the boy away to Australia to live.

 

The final half hour of Mountains May Depart is set almost entirely in Australia. Zhang is present but the emphasis now shifts to Dollar (Dong Zijian) who, in his late teens, enters into a rather unlikely relationship with a Chinese immigrant teacher old enough to be his mother. This is Mia (Sylvia Chang). Thus the film becomes reminiscent in part of both Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and Lion (for the possibility of Dollar seeking out the mother he last saw as a child arises). This section only briefly returns to Tao in a scene that breaks away from naturalism twice over: she imagines that she can hear her son calling her name and dances in the snow out of doors to the song (‘Go West’ by The Pet Shop Boys) which at the start of the film had been heard on a record but now arrives out of nowhere. Zhao, Liang, Dong and Chang are very good and the photography is fine but, unless you are a Chinese viewer who can read in indirect comments on the 21st century history of that country, the film jumps around so much in every sense that it never works as a satisfactory cohesive narrative. One could suggest that the bond between mother and son and between father and daughter is a particular concern, but even that is not enough to unify the disparate elements here.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jingdong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang, Rong Zishan, Liang Yonghao, Liu Liu, Yuan Wenqian.

 

Dir Jia Zhangke, Pro Ren Zhonglun, Jia Zhangke, Nathanael Karmitz, Liu Shiyu and Shozo Ichiyama, Screenplay Jia Zhangke, Ph Yu Lik Wai, Pro Des Qiang Liu, Ed Matthieu Laclau, Music Yoshihiro Hanno, Costumes Li Hua.

 

Shanghai Film Group/Corporation/Xstram Pictures/MK Productions/Beijing Runjin Investment/Office Kitano-Arrow Films.
126 mins. People's Republic of China/France/Japan. 2015. Rel: 15 December 2017. Cert. 12A.