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With: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang, Han Sanming
Written by: Jia Zhang-ke
Directed by: Jia Zhang-ke
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 131
Date: 03/11/2016

Mountains May Depart (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Mountains' Range

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jia Zhang-ke's eighth feature film, Mountains May Depart, feels like something of a departure. It still features his muse Zhao Tao in prominent role (and giving a great performance), and it still deals with the ever-changing economy and social structure in China, but it somehow comes across, above all, as a kind of melodrama. It's like something Meryl Streep could star in. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the film feel a step or two down from Jia's greatest works, the ones that carefully touch upon his various themes without ever seeming like he's touching upon them.

The movie takes place in three time periods, beginning in 1999 with a musical number (not unlike the musical numbers he showcased in Platform and The World). A group of young people dance to the Pet Shop Boys' "Go West," celebrating a high point in China's economic history, an influx of money and freedom. Seemingly carefree and always smiling, Tao (Zhao Tao) has the rapt attention of two young men, the kindly, working-class Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), who has trouble expressing his feelings toward Tao, and the brash, swaggering businessman, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), bent on making money and winning Tao for himself. Guess which one Tao chooses? (To strike a final blow, Zhang buys the mine where Liangzi works and fires him.) Brokenhearted, Liangzi leaves Fenyang for good.

In 2014, Liangzi returns to Fenyang, married, but sick from working in the mines. His wife contacts Tao and gets money for his medical care. Meanwhile, Tao and Zhang are separated, but Zhang has custody of their son, whom he has named "Dollar." When Tao's father dies, she arranges for Dollar to come back to attend the funeral, and she senses the distance between them.

Then, in 2025, a future that seems mostly the same except for a few more iPads here and there, a twenty-something Dollar lives with his father in Australia, where they have moved for new entrepreneurial opportunities. Dollar speaks only English and can't converse with his own father. He forms a friendship with a teacher (Sylvia Chang) and tries to get her to translate to the old man that he wants to quit college and leave, try to find himself. Meanwhile, Dollar and the teacher's relationship grows closer, and more complicated. Back in Fenyang, Tao makes dumplings (something she does throughout the film) and takes her dog for a walk in the snow.

It's too bad that Zhao Tao isn't featured more prominently in the third segment. Her exemplary performance really holds the film together, and it's conspicuously absent from the final third. Moreover, the performances in English in the third segment seem a bit stilted, presumably because Jia probably had to work with a translator himself. However, the third segment comes the closest to Jia's regular themes, with Australia serving as a kind of final frontier for Chinese businessmen. The aging Zhang has a coffee table filled with guns; he complains that he couldn't get them in China, but now that he can, he has no one to shoot.

Jia mirrors certain images from the three time periods, and they are dramatic as often as they are personal. The good news is that Mountains May Depart is probably the easiest of all Jia's films for a Western audience to watch, but the bad news is that, while it falls just short of his best, it's still an excellent, accomplished film from a master filmmaker.

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