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On the brink of the new millennium, Shen Tao (Tao Zhao) decides to reject her working class friend and admirer Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) in favour of their obnoxious wealthy friend Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang). A choice they will all come to lament.
Mountains May Depart, and if we are speaking in geological terms, it is fair to say that this film moves at glacial speed. Mountains May Depart is full of space, as is often the way in decade-spanning films (Boyhood (2014); The Tree of Life (2011)). After the long, slow build-up of the 1999 section, the appearance of the titles at 45 minutes is a little daunting. There is a frustrating amount of silence during most of the conversations, with each actor hoping to render their character brooding and philosophical. Sadly this technique falls flat when it reads as thought the actors have forgotten their lines.
A Cantonese song is played several times throughout Mountains May Depart, serving as a pivotal plot point, but Director Zhangke Jia seems reluctant to include much more music than that, as though the audience will fail to recognise its significance, given the distraction of too much other music.
Mountains May Depart contains many beautiful shots throughout. The second act, set in 2014, begins with a group photo of coal miners on a broad set of steps. Liangzi stands among them, and lingers as they all disappear afterwards. It is a scene which evokes the films of Wim Wenders. Though Wenders would have made much more of the soundtrack had he been at the helm.
There are a couple of scenes involving Shen Tao’s father (a woefully underused character), which take on the air of a Wes Anderson scene. One is a quiet moment on a train, and another involves a group of monks. Both of these scenes with Shen Tao’s father convey so much without dialogue, which Anderson did best in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Anderson, in these more subtle moments, echoes Yasujirō Ozu: combining beautiful shots with wordless narrative. Pushing that connection one step further, a decent comparison can be drawn between Mountains May Depart and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière (2003) (a tribute to Yasujirō Ozu). Another slow-burner, which revolves around a young woman’s relationship with her parents as she decides to raise her child alone.
Stick with Mountains May Depart until the final, 2025 act. It is the most rewarding of the three. Zijian Dong as Shen Tao’s son, Dollar is a good fit, and Sylvia Chang is perfect as his teacher/lover when things take a Freudian turn.
The representation of characters over three time periods is really hit and miss. Yi Zhang as Zhang Jinsheng does not fare well in his transformation into grumpy middle-aged patriarch. He handles the grumpy part reasonably well, but it takes a while to adjust to the sight of his moustache. Tao Zhao is far more adept at playing Shen Tao at different ages, displaying a convincing array of reactions to all that life throws at her over the years: youthful naivety becoming sorrow, anger, and finally pragmatism as she reaches middle-age. Representations of the near future always bring to mind Spike Jonze’s Her. Zhangke Jia does well to acknowledge and include upgraded technology in a way that is subtle and convincing (unlike that moustache).
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