MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Stars: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong
Rating: * * ½ (out of 5)
Chinese cinema’s foremost chronicler of its new world order goes further afield than ever before with a three-part story that takes in his familiar Northern province home turf of Kenyang in 1999 and 2014, before venturing into Australia 2025. It begins as a love triangle among three friends, with status-obsessed entrepreneur Zhang (Zhang Yi) and modest coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) vying for peppy dance instructor Shen Tao (Jia’s regular leading lady and partner Zhao Tao). The present day sees the now separated Tao struggling to reconnect with her young son, Dollar (yep, Dollar), who now lives with his father and new wife. Eleven years later, Dollar now living in Australia, apparently having forgotten Mandarin and his mother entirely, gets involved with an ex-pat divorcee from Hong Kong.
Fans who thought they had Jia’s lo-fi, obtusely lyrical charms (Platform, The World) pegged were jolted out of complacency by 2013’s pulpy violent A Touch of Sin. Mountains is a different departure again, but here he’s on far shakier ground. Even saddled with too much on-the-nose contrivance (aside from the kid’s ridiculous name, we open on a dance routine to The Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’), the first, longest and most familiar section works best, as the region’s capitalist leanings and the nascent romance stirs to life. The second gets slowly stymied by its melodramatic conventions. And the third is a stilted mess, a barely realised future with travel agents and fancy comms systems that still somehow separate mother and child.
Zhao Te deserves accolades for her transformative role, but she’s missed badly in the final third, before a fine closing sequence salvages some pride. Jia-heads will doubtless still make great claims for his cinematic skills – the shift in image size across time frames, from boxy Academy aspect ratio to futuristic widescreen, is a nice touch – but by his own high standards this is a disappointing and hopefully temporary stumble on what’s been a fascinating ongoing journey to map of China’s seismic social changes.