Director Jia Zhangke seems to be hot stuff in China at the moment. I’ve tried for ages to get a hold of a decent copy of the well known Still Life but it seems almost impossible. This one is a more recent release and duly made it onto the usual lists of the year’s most notable films. Unfortunately while I liked the director’s previous release A Touch of Sin, I found this one to be very mediocre.
The film takes place across three different time periods. In 1999, Shen Tao is a young woman in Shenyang with two good male friends, both of whom are pursuing her. One of them, Liangzi, is a mine worker of modest means while the other, Zhang Jinsheng, is an up and coming businessman. When the two force Tao to choose between them, she chooses the richer man and marries him, causing Liangzi to move away from the city. Fifteen years later Tao is divorced and her son with Jinsheng is being raised in Shanghai with his father. Liangzi, now married to another woman and with a child of his own, returns to Shenyang due to a serious medical ailment. Tao visits him and gives him some money to help with his medical expenses but they have little to say to one another. When her son Daole arrives to visit her, she realizes that Jinsheng intends to take him to Australia permanently. The last part takes place in 2025 in Australia. The now English-speaking Daole has almost no memory of his mother and has become estranged from his father Jinsheng.
Spread out as its story is, it isn’t easy to discern what the director is trying to convey in this film, especially as it takes something of a derail in the third act. Not only does the last story feature only new characters who don’t benefit from the sympathy that the audience has built up over the previous episodes but it is almost entirely in awkwardly phrased English and involves a shocking development that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to gel with the film’s wider themes. After questioning my wife about what its Chinese title means, I’m fairly certain that the lesson here is that once people, even the most important fixtures of your daily routine, drift out of one’s life, it is impossible to reconnect with them. This phenomenon recurs again and again in Mountains May Depart, most tellingly when Tao meets Liangzi to give him money but we see nothing more of him. This is actually a very strong theme for a film to have as it stands in contrast with the more usual scenario of having people reconnect with each other after long absences. There’s something very dark in acknowledging the transience and fragility of our connections to other people but perhaps this is a more realistic portrait of life than what we usually see.
Unfortunately the delivery is marred by extraneous elements that make the film feel overly busy as well as uncharacteristically flawed directing. For example, there seems to be a half-hearted critique of freedom embedded in it and the May-December romance is distracting and completely unexpected. There is little chemistry between the trio at the beginning of the film and the actors don’t even convincingly look like they’re in the mid-twenties. The plot is contorted into unbelievable knots to place the characters where they needed to go so that Tao has no contact with her son at all after he moves to Australia. This makes no sense at all given the convenience and ubiquity of modern communications technology and the fact that everyone involved is prosperous. Would it kill her to visit once a year or so? How could the son lose the ability to speak Chinese if he has spent his entire childhood with his Chinese-speaking father? I’m especially disappointed by how maladroit the director seems with the profusion of weepy scenes that have no dramatic weight whatsoever. It feels very much as if Jia had some interesting ideas of what he wanted to do but went the lazy route and played loose with the execution.
All this makes Mountains May Depart a very mediocre film that I can’t recommend at all. The kindest thing I can say is that at least Jia seems to be ambitious and is trying new things as the English-speaking scenes in Australia demonstrate. However ambition and ideas get you nowhere without execution and this film simply doesn’t deliver.