After earning raves on the 2013 festival circuit for A Touch of Sin, Chinese director Jia Zhangke returns with Mountains May Depart, a story of friendship and family in modern China spanning decades. Told in three parts, the film begins in 1999 as China experiences the economic boom that turned it into the superpower it is today. Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) is a flighty small-town girl torn between two friends, the newly rich capitalist Zhang (Zhang Yi) and the working class miner Liangzi (Liang Jindong), who compete for her affections. Tao chooses Zhang and the film then follows the trio and their wildly different paths over the next three decades, catching up with the characters again in 2014 and 2025.
While Mountains May Depart features many of the same themes found in Jia’s other work – class, family, wealth, poverty, and friendship – the film is a far more intimate affair than his previous movie, drilling down into close familial relationships – husband and wife, parent and child – and how those relationships are shaped by an ever-changing country.
The scale of the story may be many decades, but the stakes are small and personal with each era given its own aspect ratio to highlight the changing times. This structure allows Jia to explore the ramifications of his character’s choices many years down the line. Will you ride the wave of newfound prosperity? Where will that wave take you and what will it cost you? Unfortunately the drawn out structure ultimately hurts Mountains May Depart in its third act though, when the action is transplanted to Australia and the characters from earlier in the film are barely present.
Mountains May Depart is ambitious filmmaking and quite fascinating to watch, but it simply doesn’t live up to Jia’s previous work.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2015 coverage.