* 53rd New York Film Festival
Power to the people
by Fabio Andrade
Mountains May Depart starts with a pretty memorable sequence of Jia Zhang-ke’s staple actress Zhao Tao at the center of a tableau, leading a group dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 hit “Go West”. The use of music is a trademark in Jia Zhang-ke’s cinema, and the bodies electrified by the incessant beat of the opening sequence more specifically recall the end of his beautiful 2010 documentary, I Wish I Knew, apparently setting the viewer in quite familiar territory. However, despite the clear similarities, a couple of differences point at directions one doesn’t normally find in Jia Zhang-ke’s films.
The first difference is quite visible: while I Wish I Knew ended with a single person dancing among the wood planks and trucks inside a warehouse, clashing two different facets of China’s galloping modernity, Mountains May Depart starts with a couple dozen actors engaged in coordinated choreography. The other comes through the ears: the song is not only present for the brute intrusion of its rhythms, textures and timbres, but for the lyrical text it lends the film. “Together we will go away/ Together we will leave someday / (…) Together we will start life new / Together, this is what we’ll do / Go West, life is peaceful there / Go West, in the open air / Go West, where the skies are blue / Go West, this is what we’re gonna do”. If I Wish I Knew dematerialized an entire historical process in the concrete rhythms of a future that was yet to be discovered, in Mountains May Depart going West is established as the seminal desire of a whole generation. Starting from that, we’re left with an instigating question: at what price? The answer to that is precisely what the film is then going to demonstrate.
It’d be nitpicky to focus on these two aspects of a prologue that’s also powerful for a number of other reasons, were said reasons not also a perfect illustration of the ambitions and the dilemmas of Mountains May Depart, which are also clear departures, if not completely unforeseeable (says the prophet of consummated facts), from Jia’s previous work. At least since his 2000 masterpiece, Platform, Jia Zhang-ke has redefined the possibilities of political cinema by understanding that simply exposing characters to the passage of time in an ever-changing country triggers all sorts of political conflicts and personal sacrifices. Some of Platform’s rigorous ambivalence towards the effect of these changes started wearing off in his later films, as a decidedly more critical view started taking over – and, considering what we see on screen, it’s not only hard to blame him for that, but also to believe that posture has done any harm to the films. Still, despite the fitting pessimism, in films as distinct as The World (2004), Still Life (2006) or A Touch of Sin (2010), Jia Zhang-ke inaugurated and explored new possibilities of politics in cinema by capturing only the reverberations of the macropolitics in the landscape and in the lives of his characters. That approach made it unnecessary to fabricate contradictions through the characters, ‘cause the social-political structure of the world they live in is already perverse enough to derail their lives. China provided the scene; Jia Zhang-ke simply put the characters in strategic places for a specific amount of time. The choice illustrated by the dance number that opens his latest film goes against the fundamentals of that approach: by switching from the individual to the collective, from the open end to the destined principle, and from the physicality of sound to the discursive nature of the lyrics, Jia Zhang-ke decidedly enters the realm of political allegories.
The whole of Mountains May Depart in fact deepens this impression. The movie consists of three different stories, much like his previous film, the great A Touch of Sin, a slasher film originated from the realization that only the conventions of genre could really portray what was happening in China at the moment. But, unlike A Touch of Sin, the stories here do not create a multifaceted and often contradictory web of relationships, but a linear progression, depicting the parting realities of the same characters in 1999, 2014 and 2025. The desire clearly shifts from observation to historicity, and the foundation of class struggle is exposed in didactic fashion: Zao Thao’s character has to choose between having a romantic relationship with one of her two childhood friends, Liangzi (Dong Liang Jing) – a loving working class guy who struggles with the daily indignities of being explored – or Zhang (Jinsheng Zang) – who has grown to be a rich capitalist who owns oil companies, airplanes and a general sense of impertinence. Much like China, in the long 1999 prologue her character will choose capitalism, and the second and third episode will clarify that as an unforgivable mistake.
The allegory is clearly set as a cautionary tale, from the fate of the characters to the change in aspect ratio (the first story is in 1:1.37; the second in 1:1.85 and the third one in 1:2.35, as if mimicking the apparent expansion the world of the characters is suffering, in another stance of representational didactics) and the organized variety of instruments in the soundtrack (the strings that appear in 2014 are replaced by synths in 2025, for example), but that alone doesn’t seem to be enough. Mountains May Depart abusively highlights the clarity of the artificiality of its procedures – after an off-screen divorce, Zhao Tao’s son (Dong Zijian) will not only move with his father to Australia, but go as far as changing his name to Dollar – to establish the characters as archetypes. Even within that register, it is clear that we are not seeing ordinary people who can’t help but fill the shoes that were made for them; instead, what we get are social classes molded after the attitudes of archetypical characters, a procedure that creates a dangerous, if not irresponsible, sense of distance.
It’s interesting that words so dear to Brazilian Cinema Novo as “allegory” and “archetype” are triggered in this text by the film, with such opposite connotation. The difference is that for a filmmaker like Glauber Rocha archetypes were always a starting point, never a destination, and the allegorical nature of the narrative was constantly progressing towards the reshuffling of the limits of the different regimes of the sensible (“Until the dry lands become the sea, and the sea becomes the dry lands” is a famous quote from Rocha’s 1964 masterpiece, Black God, White Devil, for good reason). In Mountains May Depart, they serve as mere demonstrations of a proposition that can be easily figured out from the opening scene, and its different illustrations will rarely offer opportunities to derive or stray away from its original purpose.
In such a tightly-knit scheme, it’s only natural that the structure can reveal more about the movie than any of its parts, which rarely find the opportunity to breathe as whole, and that the dialectical process is removed from the world of the film to take place within the filmic structure. It’s ironic, though, that Jia Zhang-ke fails to realize that filmic structure can be just as perverse as any other system, and that what the movie does to its characters is not very different in nature from the heavy hand of capitalism. Even the moments that do carry some inherent contradiction – the beautiful opening of the second part; the complementarity of dynamites and fireworks; the beautiful ending scene; the dialogue between the mother and the son in the second episode, where Zhao Tao tells him that they took the slow train so she could spend more time with him – are undermined by the function they carry in a movie that’s been reified and now works like a well oiled, but obsolete machine. For most filmmakers, a movie like Mountains May Depart would seem like an unfortunate mishap, collapsed by the unbearable weight of its overtly deterministic structure. For Jia Zhang-ke, one of the greatest filmmakers alive, it’s hard not to feel a strange confidence behind the clarity of the gesture, and to see it as anything less than a big, bold step in the wrong direction.