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How ‘Mountains May Depart’ Director Jia Zhangke Juggled Past, Present and Future in His Latest Epic

How 'Mountains May Depart' Director Jia Zhangke Juggled Past, Present and Future in His Latest Epic

READ MORE: Cannes: ‘The Assassin’ and ‘Mountains May Depart’ Present Exciting New Visions of the Far East

Director Jia Zhangke is no stranger to films with an epic scope. His 2000 feature “Platform” spanned the years 1979-1989, and his Cannes-winning 2013 film, “A Touch of Sin,” was an ambitious anthology of four stories of violence and anger from across modern-day China. With his latest film, “Mountains May Depart,” which played at both Cannes and TIFF before having its stateside premiere at NYFF this week, Jia Zhangke may be dealing with his broadest scope yet, beginning in Fenyang, China,  in1999 and ending more than 20 years later all the way in Australia.

“Mountains May Depart” is divided into three acts: 1999, 2014 and 2025. In 1999, on the cusp of China’s capitalist boom, Shen Tao is pursued by two suitors, Liangzi and Zhang. She chooses Zhang, with a promising economic future, and the two have a son, whom they somewhat prophetically name Dollar. Fast forward to 2014, when Dollar is being flown from his father in Shanghai to spend a weekend with his now estranged mother, who lost custody of her son some years earlier when she and Zhang divorced. More than a decade later, in 2025, Dollar and his father have been living in Australia for years. Dollar has forgotten about his childhood in China, including his ability to speak Mandarin and, more importantly, his own mother’s face.

Jia Zhangke sat down with Indiewire in the midst of NYFF to discuss the process behind his latest epic picture, the struggles behind recreating the past and guessing at the future, and how he drew from his own memory, all while keeping the focus on what he believes matters most — love.

The film takes place in these three different times, it’s almost like a period piece. What was it like recreating two years, and then having to go invent a new one?
When I first started putting this together as a screenplay, I really wanted to focus the narrative on love and human emotions. In order for me to do that in a closer investigation, it takes time, it might actually span decades. The reason it takes time for us to do a closer examination of love is that through time we experience new emotions, but we also have a distance to look back on past love and gain a new interpretation and understanding of it.

When I was putting this together, I was originally going to go from 1999 to 2014, in present day. The reason why I wanted to start the story in 1999 wasn’t just because it’s the turn of the century, but more importantly, that year is the turning point between “pre” and “post” internet. I think that’s a very crucial point, not only internet-wise, but also when cell phones became popular. You also see a lot of infrastructure being built for freeways and private cars. These are the things that I somehow wanted to narrate about the starting point of the story.

When I was narrating on these two periods, I had two images of the lead: Zhao Tao, in my head, was one face was 25 or 26, right before she gets married, and the second face was 40, where you could see the lines of aging. Then the other face was the child character, Dollar, from being a baby then a young child. When I was doing the second, contemporary part of the story, I started to become intrigued by what would happen for these two characters going forward into the future. Especially for Dollar, who’s such a passive character in that there are a lot of decisions being made for him by the last generation. His parents divorced, his father got custody and then eventually went abroad. He didn’t have any options in those decisions. So my curiosity strayed to whether a character like Dollar, such a passive character, could ever have freedom.

That decision to shift to Dollar’s point of view for the last segment is really interesting. You don’t even see Tao again until the last minute or so of that segment.

Tao, at the end, was another thing I was very curious about. What would happen to her if she became ill? Will she will be able to love again? Will her and Dollar be reunited? A lot of aspects really attracted me to developing this third part of the story going forward into the future. When I was writing the script, I had only two faces, and then suddenly I had to deal with these new, future faces for both of them. I remember I was in my gated community in Beijing and I saw three different buildings. I thought, “I’m going to go from this building, to that building, to that building in three different episodes, and have the characters walking through this different time and space.” That made it a little easier, to think about it like that.

The characters’ ages weren’t the only thing changing between these periods, though. There are other differences, like the aspect ratio.

In terms of the aspect ratio, that decision was actually a passive one out of necessity. When I was trying to restage the 1999 section, I had to do a lot of research into how people dressed, how people walked, how people carried themselves. That was also the same time I had my first camera, and I had shot a lot of raw documentary footage of my hometown. I hadn’t seen the footage for a long time, but for research purposes I thought I’d take a look and the first thing I saw was the scene in the disco club. I thought, “Why not incorporate the raw footage from 1999 into the movie? It’s so authentic and it would be very difficult, if not impossible to recreate that.” All that footage was shot in 1.33:1.  For the second part, I also incorporated footage I had shot recently using 1.85:1 aspect ratio, that was the footage from the coal mining sequence. I thought, “Why not shoot the rest of the footage in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio as well?” So now I have two episodes with two different ratios, and it would make sense to do the third episode in 2.39:1 widescreen.

I do think the progression of the width of the screen also somehow reflects the evolution of moving images. Especially in the private videos we have, going from 1.33 to however big our cell phone displays are, you can see that it’s really changing from a square image to the elongated image we’re so used to now. In terms of the times, from the beginning, I had it very, very clear in my head that I wanted to also have three different periods in terms of how densely and closely people related to each other physically. In the past, it’s very warmly connected and very densely populated, but then slowly but surely, you feel the isolation and alienation till the future, when you don’t really see that many people around.

As the screen gets bigger, the cast gets smaller.

Precisely.

I feel I have to mention the music in the film, not just the Pet Shop Boys’ song but also the Cantonese pop song and the music in the club. How did you end up deciding on these specific songs?

The story starts in 1999 and that’s when I was 29, and I started thinking, “What was I doing at age 29?” I realized I was just hanging out at clubs [laughs], and that was the reason I used this, because that was the most popular entertainment of the time. Young people went to clubs and expressed themselves physically, individually. The first song that came to mind was “Go West” by The Pet Shop Boys. “Go West” was very popular during that time, but the DJ usually wouldn’t play that song until midnight, as a sort of signal that it was a new day, and then everyone, whether or not they were complete strangers, would be holding hands or other people’s shoulders and do this kind of line dancing thing. To me, it’s definitely a collect memory for my generation, but also a collect memory of how energetic we were at the time.

In terms of the Sally Yeh song, she’s a singer I have been following since the 1980s, and I was a big fan of hers. In John Woo’s “The Killer,” she sang and acted, and I saw it in the 1990s in some video archive and it really touched me. I listened to her songs quite often, and in all her songs she wasn’t just singing about love, she was singing about duty, about a sense of obligation. It’s more than just loving each other, it’s also, “How are we going to somehow whether the storm? We’re going to overcome challenges as a couple, as lovers.” It was that sense of duty that really attracted me to her songs. I do think that pop songs like this — you don’t get to listen to them anymore, these songs about a certain type of love, not just love in general, love with a sense of obligation and duty.

There’s these scenes of love that you mention, but some scenes are also quite violent, sometimes spontaneously so.

I think the elements of violence really follow the male character, Zhang Jinsheng, who represents this newly rich population in the 1990s. The way they became rich was connected to violence, whether through corruption or through predatory competition, and they gained their wealth through illegal deals. To me, that was the violence that I wanted to incorporate into the film, following this predator character.

The scene with the plane crash is actually from my childhood memory. Back in my hometown, there was an air force base around my neighborhood. When I went to school and saw that one of my classmates didn’t show up for class, that would be a sign that his or her parent may have passed away in a plane crash. It was quite common that these type of plane crashes happened, and many of my classmates were from the families working for the air force base. It’s a memory from my childhood that accidents like this can suddenly, unexpectedly happen. In “Mountains May Depart,” I wanted to look at human emotion, not just love but intergenerational relationships, birth, aging, illness, death. These are things that are inevitable and expected on some level, but there are other components of these things you have to deal with that are unexpected, like a plane crash.

Memory is clearly so essential to the film, too. How were your memories involved in the 2014 section and even the 2025 section?

It takes a lot of imagination. The way you can imagine what will happen in the future is by observing what is happening right now. For the 2025 part, it took some research. I actually traveled and interviewed in different cities — Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Washington D.C., Melbourne. I interviewed immigrants who had moved from my hometown to these different countries and asked them what their lives were like. I had interviewed a lot of parents, mostly fathers, and the fathers would either say they really didn’t know how to speak the language anymore, and others would say they do still remember, but don’t feel confident enough to speak Mandarin around other Chinese people. Then, of course, there were fathers who would say they do know Mandarin Chinese, but they intentionally pretend they don’t, and that creates some kind of conflict in this generation gap.

This idea of losing a language is not just about losing your Chinese and now just speaking English, it happens domestically as well, and that’s where my personal experience is. People don’t even speak the dialects from their hometowns anymore. In China, each county, each province, has it’s own dialects, and that doesn’t involve just language. It’s the way you think, the way you imagine your reality. I do think that now, most people don’t even speak their hometown dialect, they only speak Mandarin and they lose something in that, and I wanted to place that in the later parts of the film.

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