The freedom of the road and the joys of wanderlust have been celebrated in American literature and music, even influencing European culture like Wim Wenders’ ‘70s films and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.” I doubt it occurs to most Americans that other cultures might have a different –– and substantially less rosy –– take on these desires.
If China represents the future, as pundits keep telling us, its own future resembles the American present of broken and scattered families, according to Jia Zhang-ke’s “Mountains May Depart.” His film relates 26 years in the lives of a few characters who originate in his hometown of Fenyang. As usual, Jia gets in some digs at China’s economic “miracle,” but the melancholy mood of “Mountains May Depart” is quite different from the anger of his last film, “A Touch of Sin.” Unfortunately, there’s also something slightly secondhand and distanced about it, as though he were touching his characters through latex gloves.
In 1999, Tao (Zhao Tao) lives in Fenyang and is friendly with two men, Zhang (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). The former is an investor on the rise; the latter a coal miner. Both would like to marry her. It doesn’t come as a surprise that she chooses Zhang. This part of the film ends with the birth of their son, Daole (pronounced “dollar”). In 2014, Liangzi is suffering from lung cancer and tracks down Tao to borrow money for his treatment. He learns that she’s now a lonely divorcee, though she does get a visit from Daole. Then, in 2025, the film shifts to Australia, where Daole is now an adult (Dong Zijian) who calls himself Dollar. He speaks English and becomes involved in a relationship with his much older Chinese-language teacher Mia (Sylvia Chang.)
Instead of drawing on popular martial arts films, as he did in “A Touch of Sin,” Jia recalls classic melodramas, particularly in the 1999 segment. Its love triangle’s outlines could have been lifted from a Douglas Sirk film. Appropriately, “Mountains May Depart” uses a different aspect ratio for each segment and begins in the 1.33 box of pre-1953 Hollywood. Even as the parties in that original triangle grow further apart, the film never loses its melodramatic touch.
“Mountains May Depart” presents emigration as China’s future, which is probably Jia’s way of saying that it’s China’s present. While life in China brings illness and alienation, moving to Australia proves to be no solution –- for either Zhang or Dollar. Zhang has acquired a large pile of guns and bullets, stacked on his living room table. (His house resembles a more tasteful version of James Franco’s pad in “Spring Breakers.”) At first, I thought this meant he’d become a criminal, but he later explains that he thought he’d feel free by buying guns when Australia legalized firearms ownership. Guess what? It didn’t work.
Dollar drifts out of college into a series of menial jobs, although he finds strength in his relationship with Mia. Jia proves himself a fine director of middle-aged actresses; Sylvia Chang comes across as the Chinese equivalent of Charlotte Rampling or Susan Sarandon.
If “Mountains May Depart” begins by suggesting an enervated Sirk, it ends by aping Michelangelo Antonioni. There’s even a literal version of the failure to communicate, that Italian director’s favorite theme: Zhang only speaks Mandarin, which his son can’t understand, while he needs to translate his son’s English-language emails.
But the film isn’t a wallow in alienation. It has a sense of pleasure, even joy. Jia opens some scenes with heavily grainy, distorted video close-ups. As far as I can tell, these are shot off a TV set. His gritty depiction of a night out at a club is enhanced by these images, which seem like the visual equivalent of the throbbing techno on the soundtrack. As for music, Jia uses it extremely well. The soundtrack ranges from Cantonese pop singer Sally Yeh to the Pet Shop Boys’ Village People cover “Go West,” but the latter song is particularly key to the film. It’s played over both the opening and closing scenes. One could say that Jia takes a gay anthem and claims it for the Chinese diaspora, although I doubt that was his explicit intent.
“Mountains May Depart” is definitely one of Jia’s minor films, although even they are more successful than most directors’ best work. It has an academic feel; its future never feels lived-in. It also has a few on-the-nose moments, such as an ailing Liangzi walking past a caged tiger. The film only really comes to life when music is playing. The fact that Tao dances to “Go West” with a large group of people at first and by herself at last sums up her character arc, but “Mountains May Depart” suggests that being Chinese now means wanting to go West, just as the West looks to China for hints of its future.
MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART | Directed by Jia Zhang-ke | Kino Lorber | In Mandarin with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 12 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.org