China is becoming ever-more influential on world cinema. Tentpoles now frequently make as much money there as they do in the U.S, which has led to blockbusters being tooled and aimed specifically towards those audiences. It seems unlikely that this new cultural exchange will continue to be a one-way relationship, and it’s only a matter of time before a Chinese filmmaker becomes a household name. It’s unlikely to be Jia Zhangke, but he’s already a very familiar figure among cinephiles. The 45-year-old is widely seen as the best Chinese filmmaker of his generation, having won the Golden Lion at Venice for “Still Life” in 2006, and he has continued to attract attention ever since, most notably with 2013’s “A Touch Of Sin” which picked up the screenwriting prize at Cannes that year. He’s back in competition at the festival this year with “Mountains May Depart,” his most ambitious effort yet.
Like “A Touch Of Sin,” the film is divided into distinct segments (this time in three), but Jia has dropped the genre flirtations of the last film for a decades-spanning message melodrama beginning in 1999 and ending in 2025. The first feels most like his previous pictures, a love triangle in rural Fenyang between the musically-minded Tao (Jia’s wife Zhao Tao), wealthy entrepreneur Zhang (Zhang Yi) and decent-but-poor miner Liangzi (Liang Zin Dong). Tao makes her choice, and in the second segment in 2014, Liangzi has a wife and baby of his own but is diagnosed with cancer after years of inhaling coal dust. In need of money to pay for the medical treatment, he reaches out to Tao, who married but is now divorced from Zhang. He’s raising their child Dollar in a kind of opulence that’s entirely unfamiliar to Tao, who struggles to connect with the boy when he comes back for a visit. In the final section, set in Australia a decade from now, Dollar (Dong Zijian) is even further removed from his roots, having forgotten both his mother and the Mandarin language entirely. His father is now a reclusive gun nut who feels disconnected from his adopted Southern Hemisphere home, and Dollar is a directionless student who begins an affair with his teacher, a much older woman (Sylvia Chang).
Zhangke’s always had a throughline regarding economic inequality and the 21st century-style Chinese capitalism in his work, but “Mountains May Depart” might be the director’s defining statement on the way that his nation has changed over the past few decades. If only he were a touch subtler about it —the film begins with an admittedly glorious New Year’s Eve dance routine led by Tao to Pet Shop Boys‘ “Go West,” a decidedly pointed choice, and it only get less subtle from there.
In the initial stages, there’s enough going on to keep you distracted. The relative playfulness of “A Touch Of Sin” is amped up here, and Jia keeps you on your toes throughout the opening segment, while underlaying it with a rich vein of feeling. That emotion comes to the fore in the second and perhaps best segment which reunites Liangzi and Tao to melancholy effect. All of Zhangke’s strengths are here in those earlier sections: meticulous framing, an innate feel for the landscape and finely-wrought characterizations. So too are his weaknesses: his glacial pacing, his structural wonkiness and his heavy-handed messages, though this is arguably more accessible than anything the director has made to date.
Pretty much everyone should be united in their dislike of the final act, however. A somewhat uninspired version of the near-future, the section suffers from dramatic listlessness —Dollar is pretty dislikable as a protagonist, and his May to December romance never convinces, while the idea that he could entirely forget both Tao and his native tongue despite having been nine or ten when we last saw him feels forced (to say nothing of the slightly queasy nationalist subtext of the section). But more than anything, it’s the decision to shoot so much of it in English that cripples the final chapter. Few of the actors seem particularly confident in the language, and line deliveries are often stilted or counter-intuitive. But it’s not that they’re to blame here: as the brief shocker of a turn by an Australian actor playing the ex-husband of Chang’s character (it’s not just the worst performance in the movie or at the festival, it’s one of the worst in years), proves Jia doesn’t yet seem to have the ability to direct English-language performance, and it pretty much cripples a section that is already dramatically porous.
The film improves once Tao returns for a final few minutes that remind you of how affecting it could be in general. Jia’s still clearly an immense talent, but there’s still much about his oeuvre that doesn’t quite work. And in the case of “Mountains May Depart,” he produces an ending to a film that wipes away the goodwill of much of what came before it. [C+]