Mountains May Depart continues the anthology approach of A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s previous film. This time around, the characters are continuous, but are presented to the audience in three very different scenarios – Fenyang, in 1999, Fenyang again in 2014, and then Melbourne in 2025. The shifts between those time and places take place through a trio of friends – Shen Tao, played by Tao Zhao, Zhang Jinsheng, played by Yi Zhang, and Liangzhi, played by Jing Dong Liang – and are contoured by two pieces of music that recur throughout the narrative, each time with a slightly different valency. The first of these is Sally Yeh’s 1990 song “Take Care,” while the second is the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s “Go West,” released in 1993. Using these two tracks from the early 90s to ground it, the film moves further into the future, producing an evocative and elliptical history of the Chinese diaspora in the new millennium, and a prophecy about how it will shape events yet to come.
In some ways, the first section of the film is the most spectacular, partly because it revolves around millennial spectacle in China during “the final spring of the twentieth century.” While Zhangke focuses on big events and public spectacles, most of this first section is driven by the rapport between Tao, Jinsheng and Lianzhi, each of whom is inextricably connected to the other, but each of whom seems to move in a surreal semi-abstracted space of their own as well. Against a general backdrop of celebration and optimism, the space around each of these characters feels even less defined, and less regulated, than occurs in the rest of Zhangke’s catalogue. Beyond a certain point, they don’t quite ramify as individuals, or characters, instead forming a proprioceptive ambience in which the peripheries of their personal space are always rubbing up against one another, and suggesting a broader and emergent sense of shared space in the process. That produces a naivete and brightness that is quite different to Zhangke’s previous films, which might often focus on these diffuse spaces between characters, but tend to offset it with a sense of alienation, or melancholy, that is only gently and mildly present in this opening sequence.
This rapport between the three characters never totally sequesters us from the millennial celebrations, but never quite intersects with those celebrations either. Rather, the public celebrations feel contiguous to the proprioceptive ambience that the three characters share, generalising it into a broader diasporic ambience that remains tantalizingly emergent. While there are a few focal points of celebration, they always feel slightly underdetermined, speaking to a broader and looser situation that can never quite be captured in a single image or gathering. As huge crowds amass and weave back and forth in time to speakers or singers, they seem to capture a wider rhythm that exceeds any single event, and which is often most pronounced in those spaces that don’t have any direct or explicit spectacular imperative. As a result, the most celebratory moments between the three main characters – the moments when they seem most attuned to this diasporic momentum – tend to occur in marginal, interstitial, abandoned spaces, typically of an industrial or semi-industrial nature, which sit incongruously with the cheery pastel palette, and delicate tones and textures, that Zhangke casts over this opening part of the film. Perhaps the best way to describe these images is as fresh, suffused with a forward momentum that prevents any scene from congealing too cleanly around either the characters or the spectacles they all participate in.
The opening section of Mountains May Depart is thus set on the cusp of a future driven by the Chinese diaspora. In order to visualise this world at its millennial inception, or at the threshold of its new millennial incarnation, Zhangke positions much of the action within half-realised or half-constructed spaces. Typically situated on the exurban fringes of established towns, these zones straddle traditional and twentieth-century Chinese architecture, while also gesturing towards something new and unformulated. Time and again, Zhangke will shoot these spaces from distances and angles that suggest they are on the verge of disclosing something, either to us or the characters, only to refrain from situating the revelations of the first act too squarely in these spaces. Even the natural landscapes take on this quality, suspended in a state of semi-preparation for something unspecified that has also, somehow, already begun, and been embedded in twentieth-century China for some time. That uncanny relation to the present is filtered into the circuitous and peripatetic blocking that prevents the main triangle of charaters ever stabilising into a couple or single pair, and works its way into the syntax of the film itself, as Zhangke rolls the credits in the opening minute, but only continues them in the forty-fifth.
This recurrence of the credits coincides with the shift to the second section, which takes place in Fenyang in 2014, and is the closest to the present in terms of its outlook and ambience. The most dramatic difference from the opening section is that the three friends have gone their separate ways, loosening, and in some cases elasticising, the rapport that originally joined them. In the interim, Tao and Jinsheng got married and had a child, who they nickname “Dollar,” but they have since got divorced. Jinsheng, now going by the name of Peter, is a successful banker in Shanghai, where he has remarried, while Tao is still living in Fenyang, where she manages a gas station. Meanwhile, Liangzhi has contracted lung cancer as the result of working in the coal mines, and passes away towards the end of this episode. On the face of it, that might look like a neat typology for Chinese subject positions in the mid-2010s, but the trio retain just enough of their peripatetic and circuitous rapport to prevent them from ever solidifying into mere types. Instead, their communications, such as they are, speak to a dispersal and diaspora that can no longer be condensed to the celebratory spectacles of the opening act, partly because it has become more enmeshed with exploitation, corruption and economic rationalism than the three originally envisaged.
Of all the characters, Tao is the most diasporic, or seems closest to the fringes of the diaspora. Paradoxically, that’s because she’s the only character who has stayed in the same place, meaning that she is the only one who has witnessed how intertwined Fenyang has become with the peripheries of the diaspora, and the ways that has turned even urban Chinese subjects into fringe-dwellers within their own country. That diasporic identity is encapsulated in her strained relationship with her son, Dollar, who she only sees on an occasional basis, due to Peter’s control of him and his new family. In fact, we only see Tao and Dollar together once, on the eve of Peter and Dollar’s emigration to Australia. During this time, Tao tries to educate Dollar in old Chinese ways, cooking dumplings for him, taking him back to Shanghai on the old train, and playing him her favourite Sally Yeh song as she escorts him home. Yet rather than embed them both back within an older and more stable Chinese identity, this makes their rapport feel even more fragile and precarious, culminating with her reminder that “Nobody can be with you all through life – we’re fated to be apart.”
During this second part of the film, the palette becomes greyer and more muted, while the action shifts from the emergent zones of the first act to the spaces of mass transit that are more typical of Zhangke’s body of work. Yet the brightness of the third act, which takes place in Melbourne in 2025, is arguably even bleaker and more melancholy. We’re introduced to this final section through Dollar himself, who is now in his late teens, and living with Peter in a high-rise apartment on what appears to be the western side of Port Phillip Bay. We learn that Peter is now single and that Dollar hasn’t maintained any connction with Tao, leading him to seek out a relationship with his older language tutor, Mia, played by Sylvia Chang. Much of the third act revolves around this language class, which teaches Chinese expatriates to speak Chinese, and starts with them learning their real Chinese names. To even call these figures expatriates feels a bit anachronistic by 2025, however, since as Zhangke frames it Australia has now become the very cusp of the diaspora. In the process, English has become inherently stilted and uncomfortable – for English speakers as much as Chinese speakers – to the point where neither English not Chinese seem to exist in a discrete way any more, with most of the key characters living, speaking and working somewhere on the continuum between these two modes of address.
To an Australian viewer, it’s quite uncanny to see all this playing out with BP, Coles and other features of our suburban landscape in the background. These small flashes of Australiana are doubly disorienting in that they’re not situated within any stable or consistent sense of space. In fact, the future is presented as largely post-spatial within Zhangke’s vision, suffused with bleached, bright, glittering surfaces, and set to gurgly staticky sound effects that immediately dilute the import of Sally Yeh’s track when it is played once again. The shift from the emergent spatiality of the first act, to the post-spatiality of this third act, produces an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and finitude, summarised by Dollar’s observation that “There is nothing in the world that really interests me now.” While he and Mia do take a helicopter ride over the Twelve Apostles, it feels like an impotent gesture, an attempt to situate themselves with a spectacular or sublime spatial field that vanishes the moment they have left it behind. Most of the outside world looks like a screen saver, especially on the commuter train that Dollar takes in and out of Melbourne, while the few outdoor scenes tend to be abstract and liminal: beaches, sand dunes, horizon.
In this final act, then, Zhangke provides an image of a fully-realised diaspora – one in which China has diffused itself so seamlessly across the world’s spaces that those spaces, and their own sense of space, have ceased to exist. In a very real way, this has already happened, since the digital technology that erodes our daily sense of space is nearly entirely produced in China, and one of the bedrocks of Chinese global economic dominance. But Zhangke offers a bit of a different take on this from most films about digital technology, presenting that digital supremacy as a symptom, rather than motor engine, of an even broader and more pervasive diasporic impulse. Within the film’s logic, Chinese capitalism promised endless space at the start of the millennium, but has somehow ended up destroying all space a quarter of a century in, producing a visual flatness and shallow focus more attuned to Chinese melodrama than Zhangke’s earlier arthouse style. We started to glimpse this in A Touch of Sin, but it’s more fully-formed here, especially in the closing scene, where Tao, still in Fenyang, dances to “Go West” against a desolate blue-grey backdrop of traditional and industrial Chinese architecture. It is as if Zhangke is signalling that his own images, and his own exquisite command of space, has somehow become complicit in the spatial devolution of this final act, and that melodrama is the logical language for him to combat it. From all accounts, that’s just what is next film, Ash is Purest White, sets out to do, suggesting that Mountains May Depart may well be the pivot to a new stage and outlook within his work.