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Film Reviews Mountains May Depart: Jia Zhang-ke’s intimate film is as big as China itself

Mountains May Depart expertly balances the micro and the macro, the onrush of the new and the tug of tradition here, blanketing the proceedings with a pall of melancholy.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Jia Zhang-ke
Directed by
Jia Zhang-ke
Starring
Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

Jia Zhang-ke's eighth feature film, Mountains May Depart, is at once as big as … well, as big as China and as intimate as a Chekhovian family drama. Its 125 minutes are split into three parts, the first set in 1999, on the cusp of the millennium, the middle in 2014, the last in 2025, in Australia no less.

The movie starts as a kind of romantic melodrama in the provincial city of Fenyang, where 18-year-old Tao (a radiant Zhao Tao) is being wooed by two suitors, one a humble, introverted coal miner (Liang Jin Dong), the other a brash entrepreneur (Zhang Yi). Tao eventually weds the entrepreneur and soon after gives birth to a son whom the entrepreneur names Dollar. By 2014, the couple is divorced, Tao's beloved father has died and her remarried ex-husband has relocated to Australia, Dollar in tow. Cut to 2025: The young Dollar (Dong Zijian) hasn't seen his mother for 10 years; he's alienated from his increasingly unhinged father, and because he's been away from China for so long, he no longer speaks the language, only English.

Like a Chinese Balzac, Jia expertly balances the micro and the macro, the onrush of the new and the tug of tradition here, blanketing the proceedings with a pall of melancholy as palpable as the smog over Beijing. Some may complain Jia is too schematic, allegorical even. (Each part in the triptych, for instance, has a different look and aspect ratio. And some film student could write a good term paper on Jia's use of red.) But these formalistic conceits, restraining as they may be, are finally subsumed by the movie's emotional directness. There's a lot of heart here.

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