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Mission Improbable as Jia Zhangke’s ‘Mountains’ Releases in China Against ‘Rogue Nation’

Mountains May Depart Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Going up against the release of Alibaba-backed “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is a tall order for any film in China. That, however, is the challenge being taken up by Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke and “Mountains May Depart,” his drama which premiered in competition in Cannes.

For Jia, who has been acclaimed overseas as one of the most important directors of his generation, getting a release at all in his native China already represents progress. His previous film “A Touch of Sin,” was widely distributed abroad, but has been denied an outing in Chinese theaters.

“Mountains” releases Tuesday (Sept. 8) in a limited number of theaters in and around Shanghai, the same day that the Tom Cruise action vehicle “Rogue Nation” releases nationwide and is expected to dominate China’s charts.

The limited run for “Mountains” is intended to allow the film the commercial run necessary for it to qualify as China’s foreign language contender in the Academy Awards race. Academy rules require a minimum of a week of commercial screenings before the submissions deadline at the end of the month. (While some media have reported that Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem” will get the Oscars nod from the Film Bureau, China has not yet made an official pronouncement.)

The Shanghai outing will also build word of mouth ahead of a much wider release for the picture in October. “Mountains” will get its own nationwide outing on 5,300 DCP copies on Oct. 30.

“Given that his last film was denied a release in China, this is a very important step forward,” a source close to the production told Variety.

In a career spanning 15 years, Jia has documented the human scale effects of the huge social and political upheavals undergone by China as it has hauled itself from poverty to economic superpower status.

While “A Touch of Sin” was co-produced with the state-owned Shanghai Film Group and was repeatedly promised a release, the film touches on too many politically sensitive topics – corrupt local officials, prostitution, worker suicides at mega-factories – for China’s censors to stomach. Backed by the same group of co-producers, “Mountains,” in contrast, raises fewer red flags. Still melancholy, its key themes include displacement and emigration. The third act takes place in a futuristic, English-speaking China relocated to Australia.

“Mountains”, which screens in the upcoming Toronto Film Festival, has again been a strong international hit for sales agent MK2.

Rights have been acquired by foreign distributors in U.S. (Kino Lorber), U.K. (New Wave), Benelux (ABC Distribution), Brazil (Imovision), Canada (Filmswelike), Columbia (Babilla), Ex-Yugoslavia (MCF Megacom), France (Ad Vitam), Greece (AMA Films), Italy (Cinema), Middle East (Moving Turtle), Poland (Against Gravity), Portugal (Midas), SE Asia (Astro Shaw), Spain (Golem), Switzerland (Filmcoopi); Taiwan (Joint Entertainment), Tunisia (Hakka), Turkey (Kalinos) and Eastern Europe (HBO Europe). Airline rights outside France and Japan were licensed to Encore Inflight.

Walter Salles’ documentary about Jia, “A Guy From Fenyang” will play at the upcoming New York Film Festival. And both films will be released together in France, the U.S. and U.K.