01st Oct2015

LFF 2015: ‘Mountains May Depart’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang | Written and Directed by Jia Zhangke


Admitting this is the first film by Jia Zhangke that I’ve seen may lose me some street cred, but I was pleased to finally discover the filmmaker via his latest exploration of modern China, Mountains May Depart. A universal story of the irresistible draw of the present meeting the inexorable march of the future, the film stands as a bold, compassionate statement for the power of gestures and the ripples they cause through time.

And it opens with a dance sequence set to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”, which is about as ambitious an opening as you could hope for.

Taking place in three different periods – 1999, 2014 and 2025, with changing aspect ratios to match – in China and later Australia, the film charts the ups and downs in lives of three friends: upbeat Tao (Zhao Tao), arrogant but prosperous Zhang (Zhang Yi) and down-to-earth Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong). A love triangle quickly surfaces, with Zhang and Liangzi fighting over Tao. She picks pragmatically but not exactly wisely, mirroring the film’s (and the era’s) naive optimism that hoping for a better future (like the one “Go West” promises) is enough to make it happen, despite the compromises that will inevitably be made.

Zhangke isn’t afraid to leave characters offscreen for half an hour at a time, because we inevitably long for their return. The performances unfold beautifully over the film’s timeline, with the central trio seeming light and almost broad until we see their older, more compromised adult personas and are able to reflect on how much it’s possible for one person to change. Alterations in stakes and characters’ lives are revealed unhurriedly in scenes that feel as though we’re sitting in the same room as them rather than watching a drama unfold, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Zhao Tao is clearly the standout here, giving a genuinely touching performance full of vivacity, tenderness and grace, but in a film that shifts perspective the rest of the ensemble needs to be – and is – just as good. Sylvia Chang crops up in the film’s final chapter in an unexpected role. The 2025 scenes mark Zhangke’s first foray into English-language filmmaking, and while there is some awkward anglicisation and stilted delivery from less-than-fluent actors, I’ve certainly seen far worse transitions. The sequence is the film’s least effective, but sheds a compelling enough light on all that came before that it still works despite some strange storytelling choices.

The final scene, in contrast, is perfectly pitched: undoubtedly beautiful and affecting, melancholy yet still finding one character as optimistic as 25 years earlier. Zhangke’s confidence and audacity with Mountains May Depart‘s final moments cements his film as the best I’ve yet seen at this festival and assures that I’ll be actively seeking out more of his work.

Mountains May Depart is showing at the BFI London Film Festival on Wednesday 7th & Thursday 8th October. Click here for more information and tickets.


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