In hindsight, it seems downright bizarre that Jia Zhangke’s shift to aboveground, state-approved filmmaking—starting with 2004’s The World—prompted fears of a “sellout.” The World itself was hardly a bright, rose-tinted vision of contemporary China; ditto the much-lauded Still Life (2006), which depicted the human costs of the Three Gorges Dam. Any concerns that Jia would modulate his sensibilities for broader consumption were definitively put to rest when he followed Still Life with a string of inventive works (such as Useless and 24 City) that blurred the lines between documentary, fiction, and essay.
Unfortunately, these films were barely released in China, and even Jia’s international audience wasn’t completely on board with the new direction. (I Wish I Knew, his wistful take on Shanghai’s history, remains undistributed in the U.S.) For A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia returned to a more conventional narrative mode, with a generous dose of violence to boot. The result brought Jia his widest audience to date in overseas markets, and would plausibly have done the same in China had the censors not denied it a local release.
In public, at least, the normally-prudent Jia wasn’t too put out by the film’s suppression, even though the incurred losses forced him to abandon his planned arthouse cinema in Beijing. Whether for this or for other reasons, Jia left his longtime base of operations in Beijing and moved back to his native province of Shanxi, where he opened a noodle restaurant in the provincial capital Taiyuan (hometown of his wife and regular lead Zhao Tao). The return to old turf seems to have put him in a reflective mood. Jia reviewed low-res DV footage he shot around the turn of the century, then some of his more recent videos of Shanxi coal miners. Starting with a title he conceived long before he had a story to go with it (Shān Hé Gùrén, literally “Mountains, Rivers, and Old Friends”), Jia devised a plot that tied both eras together, then projected it into the future. The result is a three-part story that starts in 1999 and ends in 2025.
Mountains May Depart marks the first time since Platform (2000) that Jia has set a narrative feature in his hometown of Fenyang. Like so many other towns in Shanxi, Fenyang was and remains heavily dependent on the coal industry, a fact with grim implications for Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) and Liang Zi (Liang Jingdong). The childhood sweethearts seem made for each other, but Liang Zi has few prospects beyond the mines. Tao, meanwhile, is pursued by Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a smooth operator who owns a gas station and a “German-engineered” car.
Tao throws in her lot with Jinsheng and the narrative jumps to 2014, accompanied by a shift from the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio (to match Jia’s vintage late-’90s videos) to a wider 1.85:1. The now-divorced Tao lives alone and rarely sees her son Daole. She has an uncomfortable reunion with Liang Zi, whose mine is threatened with closure, then loses her son when Jinsheng takes him abroad. The film’s final section, in ’Scope 2.39:1, moves to 2025 Australia, where the teenaged Daole (Dong Zijian) is estranged from his father and has an affair with the much older Mia (Sylvia Chang).
This ambitious plot gives Jia plenty of room to explore his usual themes. Urbanization is reflected by Fenyang’s startling transformation between the first and second parts—in fact, Jia had to go elsewhere for locations resembling the town’s appearance in 1999. The dislocation experienced by so many of Jia’s protagonists is taken to its greatest extent in the Australian segment: not only Daole is thousands of miles from China, he’s all but forgotten his mother and his native language.
That said, while Mountains May Depart is perfectly of a piece with Jia’s filmography, there’s something else going on too. Jia’s movies aren’t cold or distant, and even his more experimental work can pack an emotional wallop; think, for example, of Joan Chen’s storyline in 24 City. But in Jia’s own words, Mountains May Depart was explicitly conceived as a “sentimental” film, “elaborating the emotions without any jagged edges.” Such directness may be off-putting for some of the film’s arthouse audience, who don’t go to Jia Zhangke movies for lines like “The hardest thing about love is caring.” But it must be emphasized that this is Jia’s most deliberate attempt yet to reach a broader Chinese public (“Of all my films, Mountains May Depart is closest to the audience”). Unlike A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart also steers clear of anything that might upset China’s notoriously prickly censors—though the May-December relationship between Daole and Mia is worth noting in this respect, since it’s only been a few years since Trần Anh Hùng’s Norwegian Wood was cut in China to remove a similar subplot. However, Jia has carried over one element from his previous film. Just as A Touch of Sin incorporated aspects of wǔxiá/“martial chivalry” tales—an outgrowth of his long-planned martial-arts project In the Qing Dynasty—so too does Mountains May Depart invoke another venerable genre: the melodramatic wényì piàn (“literary-art films”) of the 1930s and their numerous spiritual successors.
This isn’t to say that Jia’s film is itself a melodrama, only that it has features of the genre. Other key features are absent or only minimally in evidence—definitions differ, but Louis Bayman’s concept of “the logic of the accidental” (in relation to postwar Italian melodrama) is a useful distinction:
The accidental would seem by definition to have no logic, but through the course of the films it is girded with a fatalistic philosophical outlook. The protagonists refer to their lives as governed by chance, luck, misfortune, fate, which accord, however, with an emotional destiny. Thus, coincidence occurs with inevitability…
Coincidence is a minor component of Mountains May Depart, though the film is hardly wanting for accidents (whether it’s a startling plane crash or Tao driving Jindong’s car into a stone tablet). But a sense of inevitability and “emotional destiny” suffuses the film. The audience can see from the start that Jinsheng is bad news—a materialist so shallow he names his kid “Daole” because it sounds like “dollar”—and by choosing him over the salt-of-the-earth Liang Zi, Tao condemns herself to unhappiness. (Liang Zi, for his part, contracts an unspecified lung disease, the equally inevitable consequence of his work—naturally raising the question of whether Tao would’ve really been better off with him.) Eventually, Tao says out loud what the viewer has probably suspected for some time, telling Daole that “We’re fated to be apart.”
Zhao Tao has appeared in all of Jia’s narrative features since Platform, but Mountains May Depart is her most unambiguously central role yet. She barely appears in the film’s third section, yet even here her character is crucial—the absent center around which many of Daole’s actions revolve. (The Freudian implications of his relationship with Mia are not especially subtle.) Her transformation into a tragic maternal figure echoes a subset of melodrama that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s about the misfortunes visited upon mothers. This kind of story is of course familiar in the U.S., and the resemblance is not all coincidental. D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East sparked a bout of “Griffith fever” upon its Shanghai release in 1922, and Henry King’s Stella Dallas enjoyed similar success in 1926. (In its broadest strokes, Mountains May Depart could be a remake of Stella Dallas, in which a woman marries a rich man despite their obvious incompatibility, then gives up her daughter after the divorce.)
Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother (first published in 1906) was another foreign influence, this one with strong “revolutionary” credentials that appealed to leftist circles. The Shanghai-based Communist Xia Yan—later one of China’s most renowned screenwriters—put out a translation in 1929, and Vsevelod Pudovkin’s film adaptation was much acclaimed in the early ’30s. (In China, Pudovkin rather than Eisenstein was the most celebrated Soviet director.) By that point, Chinese filmmakers had already produced work like Mother’s Happiness (1926), using maternal woe to tug at audiences’ heartstrings. But it was the left-wing Shanghai cinema of the ’30s that elevated this melodramatic fare to the classic wényì piàn—perhaps none more classic than the Ruan Lingyu vehicles Little Toys (1933), The Goddess (1934), and New Women (1935).
Ruan is the most legendary star of the Shanghai screen, remembered for her heartrending performances and tragic life story. (Plagued by scandal and abused by her lover, she committed suicide in 1935, still at the height of her career.) In Little Toys, The Goddess, and New Women, Ruan played young single mothers who sacrifice all for the sake of their children. The three films are imbued with the progressive leanings of the Lianhua Film Company, Shanghai’s leading left-wing studio. This perspective is clearest in New Women, which frames the tension between tradition and modernity as the story of an educated woman exploited by patriarchal authority figures.
Tao is something of a “new woman” herself, seen at the film’s outset leading her dance class to the Pet Shop Boys’ decidedly untraditional “Go West.” But like Ruan’s character, who is eventually obliged to look after the daughter she sent to live in the countryside, Tao is torn between familial duty and the modern ideal of self-fulfillment. Despite Jinsheng’s boasts about Hong Kong and America, and Tao’s expressed wish to see Macau, her life is ultimately far more circumscribed. In 2014 Tao is still in Fenyang, running Jinsheng’s gas station while caring for her father. She resigns herself to the loss of Daole, and the film closes in a possibly deliberate echo of Zhao Tao’s character in Platform, whose big dreams end with a solitary dance in the Fenyang tax bureau.
In the left-wing cinema of the ’30s, the love of a mother is equated with love of the motherland. Faced with Japanese invasion, the filmmakers saw their work through the prism of “national salvation,” hoping these films would spur viewers to work against the social ills undermining the Chinese nation. The “Fifth Generation” directors have revisited this tradition to explore national traumas, as in Tian Zhuangzhaung’s The Blue Kite (1994) and Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home (2014). By contrast, Jia insists that “I don’t like to use metaphors” and rejects the loftier “national-artist” claims made on his behalf: “Some people say ‘Jia Zhangke’s movies have become the best way to understand China today’… I say ‘Isn’t this crazy?’” But both Jia and his 1930s forebears aim their critiques squarely at a national audience, something particularly important to bear in mind during Mountains May Depart’s final stretch.
There’s no getting around it: the Australian section prompts more than a few raised eyebrows among Anglophone viewers, for reasons that are hard to dispute. Most of the dialogue is in English, a language Jia barely speaks, and delivered by actors clearly proficient in English but unaccustomed to performing with it. Still, any actor would have trouble with some of the dialogue here, including a line about Google Translate that provokes unintended laughter from some audiences. But dialogue can seem less mannered as text than as speech, and primary consideration was evidently given to those who would be reading the dialogue instead of listening to it. At least one line—“I think ‘Dollar’ means the U.S. dollar”—is absurd in English but not in Chinese, where the word for the U.S. dollar (Měiyuán) sounds nothing like “dollar.” (This is not the film’s only cross-linguistic difficulty; for example, a Taoist funeral scene contains a reminder that “go west” can be a Chinese euphemism for death, and much turns on the fact that Tao’s name means “waves.”)
The acting and dialogue aren’t the only things that stand out here. Jia dropped his bizarre science-fiction idea for the final sequence—Daole falling in love with his androgynous alien neighbor—but it still has a weirdly abstract quality despite using genuine Australian locations. Yet it seems this was actually by design, demonstrated when Mia names the Australian setting as the overtly non-specific “A-City.” In truth, these scenes don’t reflect Australia so much as generic ideas of “The West” held by many in China and the West itself—the West as a place where individual freedom trumps all obligations. (The feeling of a generic West is reinforced by an amusing scene involving firearms, which owes more to American gun culture than to anything in Australia.) Moral lessons are a crucial part of melodrama, and Jia depicts the hollowness of self-gratification as vividly as any wényì piàn.
In other words, Mountains May Depart finds Jia casting his critical gaze on the West, or at least certain conceptions thereof. But there’s nothing xenophobic about it, and the film implicitly questions the idea (found in popular media like Peter Ho-sun Chan’s American Dreams in China) of China as the eternal home of all its emigrants. Indeed, from his earliest films Jia has held the meaning of “home” up for debate, in a country where people are more mobile than ever and “development” transforms the landscape beyond all recognition. In this light, the dubious allure of the West is just a symptom of more basic homegrown maladies, and in Mountains May Depart there is no “homeland” outside the relationships of its people. The point is made most poignantly in the scene of Daole at the Australian coast, staring blankly at the sea. We might at first conclude he’s looking off towards China—but from a great enough distance, looking at China is the same thing as looking at the waves.