The cinema’s consummate chronicler of a China evolving so rapidly that its own citizens can scarcely keep apace, Jia Zhangke strikes a particularly melancholic chord in “Mountains May Depart,” a polymorphous snapshot of 21st-century capitalism and its discontents that also finds the filmmaker, like several of his characters, venturing for the first time outside of his home turf and mother tongue. Following a single family as it is tossed about by time, tide and the onward march of progress over the span of a quarter-century, Jia’s latest feature addresses a host of pet themes through a less quirky, stylized lens than 2013’s gruesomely violent “A Touch of Sin” or 2006’s “Still Life” (with its condemned buildings blasting off like rocket ships). But if “Mountains” feels a touch schematic at times, and awkward in its third-act English-language scenes, the cumulative impact is still enormously touching, highlighted by Jia’s rapturous image-making and a luminous central performance by the director’s regular muse (and wife), Zhao Tao. International exposure should run high, while the film will encounter less opposition than “Sin” from the local Chinese censors.
Like Jia’s first two features, “Xiao Wu” and the similarly time-spanning “Platform,” “Mountains” unfolds predominately in the director’s own hometown of Fenyang (in China’s northern Shanxi province), beginning in 1999, continuing in 2014, and ending in the near-future year of 2025. Taking a page from “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Jia and longtime cinematographer Yu Lik-wai adopt a different aspect ratio for each period, beginning in the square Academy ratio and gradually expanding to anamorphic widescreen.
Navigating these changing times (and format shifts) is Shen Tao (Zhao), a singer and dance instructor first seen leading an group dance performance to the Pet Shop Boys cover of “Go West” — a song whose lyrical promises of togetherness and new horizons ring ever more ironic as Jia revisits them throughout the film. But at least initially, it suits the jubilant millennial mood, and the classic romantic triangle that forms between the twentysomething Tao and two rival suitors: Zhang (the excellent Zhang Yi), a flashy young capitalist whose gleaming Volkswagen sedan serves as a symbol of his “new” wealth; and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a humble laborer who works at a coal mine that Zhang will soon add to his assets. When Tao agrees to marry Zhang, they take their wedding portrait in front of a photo enlargement of the Sydney Opera House — a portent of things to come, but, for the moment, as out of reach for these characters as Mars. When they welcome their first child, Zhang christens him, unironically, Dollar.
The longest of the film’s three acts (50 minutes), the opening stretch of “Mountains” is also the most familiar, devoted to the vicissitudes of provincial life that have flowed through most of Jia’s films (save for his Beijing-set “The World” in 2004), though the three actors make it a consistent pleasure to watch. But Jia pulls the dramatic strings a bit tighter once we make the leap to 2014, where Liangzi now has a wife and infant daughter, as well as a debilitating respiratory problem earned from a life in the mines. Returning to Fenyang after a long absence, he discovers that Tao is now divorced and running a gas station, while Zhang is a big-wheeling industrialist living a life of one-percent luxury in Shanghai (along with a new wife, and Dollar in tow). Bullet trains now streak across the rural Fenyang landscape, though Tao still prefers to take the slow train — an example, Jia implies, we would all be well advised to follow.
As he did in “Still Life,” which set a fictional missing-person narrative against the real-life demolition and relocation caused by China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project, Jia here once again marvels at the pace of his country’s great leap forward into the realm of modern global superpowers, while pausing to consider the collateral impact on individuals, families and the fabric of society. The conclusions he draws are sometimes sardonic but more often somber, especially as Tao feels herself losing what little influence she still holds over her badly spoiled son (seen, in one photo montage, riding horses and speedboats and hanging out court side at pro basketball games).
That feeling of soulless luxury only intensifies in the film’s final third, which leaps ahead a decade and a continent, to the western coast of Australia, where Dollar (now played by Dong Zijian) is a moody college student, while Zhang shuffles about a large beachside mansion in a dissolute haze. In Jia’s earlier films, the characters longed to escape the provinces for the big city and, once having done so (in “The World”), gazed out at replicas of international landmarks and dreamed of someday seeing the real thing. So it’s fitting that Jia has now taken on Chinese migration as a subject, and what he finds is that it is possible to travel halfway around the world only to end up living in a kind of gilded prison.
But despite a strong sense of displacement, the Australia scenes are, dramatically, the weakest in the film, weighed down by heavy allegory (the notion that, after a decade down under, Dollar has entirely forgotten how to speak Mandarin and has lost all contact with Tao) and a somewhat unconvincing romance that blossoms between Dollar and a divorcee college professor (the legendary Sylvia Chang), herself an emigre from Hong Kong via Toronto. It doesn’t help that Jia and his actors seem less than entirely comfortable working in English, though mostly what’s missed is the deeply sympathetic presence of Zhao, who returns just in time to rally the film with the perfect emotional punctuation.
At this point in his career, Jia has set such a high bar for himself that it’s hard not to hold each new project up to a perhaps impossible standard of excellence. And even when it falters, “Mountains May Depart” is never less than a work of soaring ambition and deeply felt humanism, as Jia longs not so much to turn back the hands of time, but to ever so slightly slow them down. (If we don’t really know where we’re going, the film seems to ask, how will we ever know when we get there?) It is also, like most of Jia’s work, a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, with cinematographer Yu not only varying the image size but the color palette from one section to the next, starting with intensely saturated hues and gradually working towards steely blacks, blues and grays. With each cut, Jia and editor Matthieu Laclau aim to give us some new information about the characters and the world they inhabit. Returning once more to the Jia fold, composer Yoshihiro Hanno (“Platform,” “24 City”) provides a suitably plaintive piano and strings score.