This film should have been great. It had all the right ingredients. Written and directed by the award-winning Zhang-khe Jia, a key figure in the underground ‘Sixth Movement’ of Chinese film-making, Mountains May Depart explores the life of one woman at different moments in her life in the years 1999, 2014 and 2025. Encompassing the rapid expansion of capitalism in China, and the upheavals and consequences of all that entails, are the real subject of this film. With such grand aspirations at the hands of a well-regarded director this could have been almost a definitive creative document of China’s break from communism.
But to begin with, the main character, Tao, has little to no agency in this story of her own life. In 1999, on the cusp of the new millennia, she has no dreams, ambitions or plans of her own. She works in her father’s shop, and that’s it. Two men are in love with her, Zhang – the rich, ‘elite’, brutish one (all businessmen are bossy and rough, right?) and Liangzi – the poor, traditional ‘Old China’ figure who is a labourer, still worshipping at the old shrines. Tao must choose between them. However, she doesn’t seem to particularly care for either of them beyond being casual friends, although she does cry. She ends up with Zhang, of course, but this is no dramatic thwarted romance, with a woman coerced into marrying for money and not for love. She just ends up dancing with him at a nightclub playing (of course) western music. It’s sad that a film set in the 21st century can only place young women within these age-old paradigms where women have to choose between financial security and emotional / sexual fulfilment. Or it would have been, if Tao hadn’t been portrayed as entirely vacuous.
We first meet Tao in front of a hand-held mirror, putting on makeup and fishing for compliments. However, this moment is the only one awarded her where she is thinking about herself – the rest of the time she is just responding to the statements and desires made by male characters. This so-called love triangle is intensely clumsy and heavy handed. Tao is China, Zhang represents the corrupt influence of the west (did I mention the film opens and closes with the Pet Shop Boys song ‘Go West, complete with dancing?) and the discarded Liangzi represents the honest old traditions and values of the east.
The film lacks nuance, to its detriment. For example, Tao tells Liangzi that Zhang’s posh car will be alright after a slight crash because it has ‘German technology,’ to which he responds, ‘But you have a Chinese body’. This sickening and crude interchange demonstrates how Tao is nothing more than a stick figure for Zhang-khe Jia to attach his anxieties about the Chinese switch from communism to capitalism onto.
Which conversely brings me on to the stronger moments of the film, consisting mostly of the cinematography. There is a tangible and evident love for China, with shots of the landscape (even plain old quarries and aircraft runways) done so beautifully it feels luxurious. The use of vibrant colour – normally representing Chinese traditions such as the dragon costumes at New Years – against a backdrop of increasingly homogenised western beiges was much more effective than the simplistic storyline. There are carefully placed scenes of large groups of people, reminding the audience that the backdrop of the plot is a swirling mass of significant societal change. This film probably would be perfect with the dialogue entirely muted.
There was also one short scene, almost unnecessary, which to me suggested what Zhang-khe Jia was perhaps trying to achieve. A group of men load a cloth-covered lorry with coal, and as the lorry begins to drive off on muddy ground, turning a corner, some of the coal spills out in the struggle and they rush together to reload the lorry. This was a subtle moment indicating the struggles of a developing economy, with people coming together to try and make the best of it.
As the years go by the film gets frankly increasingly implausible. A plane crashes at Tao’s feet, and she has no reaction to it. A woman and child cook dinner by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Zhang ends up being unable to speak English despite living and working in Australia for 15 years, depositing guns on the coffee table. I get that capitalism can be described as criminal but guns….? For a successful businessman in the family home? Then with final section being set in 2025, you’d think there might be a touch of SF here but no – the only thing that has changed is that chalkboards are now computer screens. The film ends up being bizarre, but not in a good way.
Mountains May Depart has worrying subtexts. It panders to western tropes (Ah, the strange exotic practices of the east which are being eroded by our terrible and all-powerful western customs!) The implication is that Chinese people should stay ‘Chinese’ (whatever that might mean) and not be lured into modernisation and wealth, and that capitalism is destructive and soul-destroying. Capitalism is a worthy target of criticism, but the lived reality of human lives is far more complex than the obvious and rudimentary dichotomies depicted here would present. It’s unconvincing, for example, that China’s former traditions are always pedestrian, antiquated and are being superseded.
Although Zhang-khe Jia was once an independent artist filming subjects such as the Tiananmen Square he now has full state funding. He has created in this film little more than a nostalgic and sentimental idealisation of the China That Once Was; perfect consumption for both the Chinese government and western audiences. I’m sure this film will be a hit with both.
MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is in UK cinemas 15th December
Review by T.S.J Harling
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