Told in three distinct parts over the course of 30 years, Mountains May Depart begins as a simple love triangle and expands, along with its aspect ratio, into a story that reverberates through future generations: the country and the film’s protagonist change.
“The decisions you make when you’re young are bloody important,” says Tom Courtenay’s character in 45 Years. This applies equally to Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. Told in three distinct parts over the course of 30 years, it begins as a simple love triangle and expands, along with its aspect ratio, into a story that reverberates through future generations: the country and the film’s protagonist change.
As the film opens, eighteen-year-old Tao (Tao Zhao) joyously dances in a crowd to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”. It’s the end of 1999, and they’re celebrating the beginning of a new millennium ushering in change. The song is the film’s anthem, an ode to the wonders abroad, and Tao’s mantra: to marry up and westernize. In each part of the film, Tao returns to the song, and our understanding of it shifts as Tao’s quest to ‘go west’ has unexpected consequences.
Tao is caught in a love triangle between Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang), the poor miner she loves, and Jinsheng (Yi Zhang), the wealthy, arrogant businessman who can offer her an economic future. Jia charts how Tao’s decision unfolds through precise but unobtrusive framing. The first time we see Tao, she’s having a pleasant conversation with Liangzi. The camera focuses on her before placing the two of them in a single frame. But then Jinsheng arrives, with a literal bang — throwing both the characters and the camera off-balance.
Slowly, Jinsheng’s wealth crowds Liangzi out of the frame and out of Tao’s life. He buys the local mine before firing Liangzi out of jealousy. When he takes Tao and Liangzi out for a ride in his fancy car, Liangzi suddenly goes missing from the frame, invisible to the audience even though he’s present in the scene. Only once there’s a crash does Liangzi re-enter frame. Jia blocks scenes to feature Tao between the two men with a fateful decision in the offing. As they look out over the town’s riverbank in a wide shot, an explosion shoots water into the air. For the town, Tao, and China itself, change is coming.
Although Tao is most at ease with Liangzi, it’s clear she craves the material things Jinsheng can provide. Costumes and props tell the story of Tao’s upward mobility. Throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, Tao wears the same multi-coloured rainbow sweater, red peacoat, and ponytail every day. But when she visits Liangzi to invite him to her wedding — his last day in town before seeking work elsewhere — she drives up on an electric scooter carrying a designer leather bag. 15 years later, she’s transformed by a cashmere red coat, designer clothing, and a fancy coiffure of flowing curls.
The second part of the film set in 2014 follows Liangzi’s story, as he returns to his hometown with his wife and newborn in search of medical care. It opens on a wide shot of a group of miners getting their annual team photo taken. Only when they start to disperse does the camera find Liangzi, older, wiser, and sicker — just one sad story amongst the many stories of poverty that surround him as part of China’s path to economic development. Liangzi has developed cancer from working in the mines. Though he’s happily married, he’s led a hard life.
Liangzi’s return makes Tao reflect on what it means to be a “winner” in China’s great economic leap forward. Tao never leaves home, but she does move up and away from the people that once defined her. Her newfound wealth means that she can provide the one thing Liangzi needs — money — but she’s paid a high price for it: she’s divorced and separated from her son, Dollar. As Tao and Liangzi sit together, catching up, their pleasant conversation is broken by protracted pauses that hold a deep sense of loss: they’re looking back rather than forward now. Zhao communicates so much when saying nothing. In a way, they both got what they wanted, and yet both are struggling. It’s the natural result of growing up, and of their country’s economic maturation.
In the end, Tao only metaphorically goes west; it’s Dollar (Zijian Dong) who gets to fulfill her dream of leaving China for the English-speaking world. Yet it’s a destiny he didn’t ask for and one that is itself full of loss. In 2030, the film’s final third, Dollar is living in Australia with his father. He’s lost his mother tongue while his father still hasn’t learned English: they communicate by email with the help of by Google translate. Dollar feels unmoored, disconnected from his father and his heritage.
Yet he can’t quite place the reason for the gap other than a vague feeling it’s to do with his absent mother. Music and circumstances keep echoing this woman he can barely remember but for whom he aches. Although his oedipal relationship with an older woman (Sylvia Chang) feels shoehorned in with awkward English-language dialogue, it’s emotionally resonant because the discomfiture is the point.
When Tao, Liangzi, and Jisheng were young, all they could see was future prosperity, blind to the sacrifices that come with it. So it’s fitting that the film’s title card doesn’t flash until the first part is over, 40 minutes into the film. The title suggests a sadder undertone of loss and loneliness, and it appears just as we’re about to witness the profound consequences of one youthful decision.