Jia Zhangke’s first movie about his hometown since Unknown Pleasures (2002), Mountains May Depart (2015) is both a throwback to his early work and something of a departure. For one thing, he places his characters much closer to the camera than in his previous films — necessitating more cutting within scenes and lots of panning back and forth in the first section of the movie, which Jia shoots in the squarish academy ratio. Consequently, it’s all the more surprising when Liangzi (Liang Jindong) punches out his nouveau riche romantic rival, Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), as he only enters the frame a few milliseconds before making impact — whereas had we seen him approaching, we might’ve been able to anticipate the blow.
The story opens in early 1999 when Liangzi (who has a job handing out helmets to coal miners) and Jinsheng vie for the affections of Tao (Zhao Tao), who works in a stereo shop in Fenyang. In contrast with the more easygoing Liangzi, Jinsheng is possessive and creepy, so it’s a bit of a mystery why Tao chooses him, especially after standing up to him when he demands she stop seeing Liangzi. Accordingly, the movie doesn’t need to explain why they ultimately divorce when the story skips ahead fifteen years to find Tao back in Fenyang after several years in Shanghai, where Jinsheng is living with their seven year old son, Daole (aka Dollar). The last section of the film is set in Australia in 2025 and centres on a teenage Daole (Dong Zijiang), whose longing for his estranged mother manifests itself as an attraction to his equally lonely professor, Mia (Sylvia Chang).
In both Platform (2000) and this movie, Jia associates pop music with the end of Maoism and the economic reforms of the 1980s — changes he views with some ambivalence. Mountains May Depart opens with a euphoric group dance number accompanied by the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” (1993) — which alludes to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe — and ends with a touching solo set to the same song, implying that China’s move from socialism to capitalism has made the characters freer but lonelier. (Or as Jinsheng puts it, “Freedom is bullshit!”) At the same time, however, a Cantonese pop album creates a bond between the characters (as well as helping to unify the episodic plot). Jinsheng impulsively buys it from a couple who come into Tao’s shop so he can give it to her, and soon after they become a couple. In 2014, Tao plays it for Daole during his first and only visit to Fenyang, and hearing it again in Mia’s class causes him to associate her with his mother.
Jia underscores the characters’ increasing remoteness from one another by shooting each of the film’s three segments in a different aspect ratio, starting out narrow and gradually widening as the characters become more dispersed. The early scenes, set during Chinese New Year celebrations, are swarming with out of focus background activity, and on the soundtrack, one hears a cacophony of offscreen noises, while the movie’s Australian settings are antiseptically clean, colourless, and sparsely populated. The harsh sound of Jinsheng cocking a gun in the middle of a tense conversation is shocking not only because it occurs offscreen without warning (we don’t even see him pick up the gun, much less cock it) but also due to the absence of other noises which makes it seem even louder. It’s touches like this that make Jia mainland China’s greatest living filmmaker.