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Film Jia Zhang-ke’s latest work reflects ambitious filmmaker’s life in China

Chinese film director Jia Zhang-ke, who has won honours at Cannes and Venice for films such as A Touch of Sin and Still Life, is photographed on Sept. 14, 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Jia Zhang-ke's last film, 2013's A Touch of Sin, was, like pretty much everything from his 1998 directorial debut onwards, an astute, arresting examination of the wrenching changes wrought upon China's population by the country's febrile embrace of state capitalism.

"The main feeling I wanted to portray was pain, suffering," Jia said of Touch in an interview last fall. And in this he certainly succeeded: The movie, in fact, revealed a hitherto unknown side of Jia's formidable directorial chops – a knack for orchestrating scenes of explosive, bloody violence that had critics busting out such adjectives as "Peckinpah-esque" and "Scorsese-ish."

Jia, 46 this spring, made his comment while attending the 40th Toronto International Film Festival. He's been an enthusiastic TIFF regular for a while. "Here you can find a wonderful audience, a very excited audience," he said through a Mandarin translator, "and they all come from mixed cultures and backgrounds." This time around he was promoting the North American premiere of his latest feature, Mountains May Depart (commercially released this weekend) as well as participating in the festival's industry program and serving as a juror for TIFF's new $25,000 Platform competition for "next generation" directors.

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While intimate in theme, Mountains May Depart is characteristically ambitious, formalistically and in setting – a decades-spanning triptych with each interlocking section rooted in a different year: 1999, 2014 and 2025. But the visceral violence that distinguished A Touch of Sin is nowhere to be seen. Or to put it another way: While there's suffering aplenty – psychological, emotional, romantic, physical – overall, the film is more lamentation, leavened by moments of poignant lyricism, than clenched fist raised in anger.

Two of those moments, one at the film's start, the other at its end, feature the same actor, Jia's long-time muse and now wife, Zhao Tao, performing the same act. The first occurs in 1999, in the provincial city of Fenyang (Jia's birthplace). Zhao, playing Tao, the young, scooter-riding daughter of a shopkeeper, is exuberantly dancing with 20 or so of her beaming pals in a club. The song they're shoop-shooping to is Go West, an intoxicating cover by the Pet Shop Boys of the 1979 Village People anthem. "Together," say its lyrics, "we will go our way/Together, we will leave some day/Together, your hand in my hands/Together, we will make our plans." Two hours later in the film, Jia has Tao repeat the dance. Except this time it's 2025. Tao is in her 50s, divorced, estranged from her only child, a son. The man who truly loved her is dead from cancer and she dances alone, outside in a snowy, rubble-strewn landscape, a slight smile upon her face.

"I knew the film should start in the disco," Jia said. The Pet Shop Boys' version of Go West, released in late 1993, "came into popularity because all these discos had popped up. It was our favourite form of entertainment. We'd go to these discos and at midnight the DJs would start to play this song, always at midnight. And no matter who you were standing next to, a friend or a stranger, you'd put your arms on their shoulders and everyone would form a train and start dancing. So to me, it signifies the vitality of youth and that moment of my past. The rhythm of it has always stayed with me."

At the time, Jia acknowledged with a smile, "we may not have understood the lyrics – but the melody brought everyone together. There was a sense of unity as a generation that came from the song." Starting the story in 1999 – 50 years after the founding of the People's Republic, almost 25 after the death of Mao – "I was remembering what the state of my body was around that time. I remember the vitality of it and the tirelessness I had."

Jia went on to say the domestic focus of Mountains May Depart was "inspired by the feelings that emerged from day-to-day life, especially my relationship with my mother." His father, a schoolteacher, had died in 2006 and his mother was living alone in Shanxi province. With Jia living 600 kilometres away, in Beijing, he wasn't getting home very often. "And when I did, I would give her money. It was on the understanding that this would give her a better life. Then suddenly I realized this was not the case. What she needed from me wasn't money but real feeling.

"So then," he continued, "we began to live together in Beijing and I got to see her every day and talk to her every day and she became very relaxed with me. I began to reflect on this; I realized in this consumer culture that has become very pervasive in China in the last little while, we'd slowly slipped into this understanding that money can solve all of our problems. I had the sudden realization that our intrinsic values had been forever changed by economic and technological developments, right down to our inner lives."

Virtually the entirety of the final instalment of Mountains May Depart takes place in Australia in the not-too-distant future. Tao's 19-year-old son, Dollar (Dong Zijian), who's been in the custody of her paranoid ex-husband (Zhang Yi) for years, is living there, attending college and, while fluent in English, is taking Chinese lessons because he has forgotten the language. Eventually, he falls in love with his much older professor (Sylvia Chang).

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Jia acknowledged that he actually considered shooting this instalment in Toronto. It was, in fact, one of five cities he scouted (the others were Vancouver, Melbourne, New York and Washington). He was drawn to the Ontario capital, he said, "because there is this huge immigrant Chinese population and they could have been of great help. Also, the city has a very mature film culture in terms of production and exhibition."

But then he changed his mind. "Because I started to consider the story from the perspective of Dollar's father's character, Zhang, who's an entrepreneur. He leaves China in 2014 and he wasn't a regular immigrant per se. At that time I imagined he was running away from legal problems because of all the social change happening in China. I thought I would choose a place with less Chinese immigrants, a place that feels emotionally and spiritually far away from China. Even though Australia is closer by physical distance to China than Toronto, it's in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything is the opposite in terms of the seasons, the weather, the time zones, so it feels at a much farther remove."

Intriguingly, Mountains May Depart was done as a co-production between Jia's own Xstream Pictures and the state-owned Shanghai Film Group. Intriguing because SFG also was a producer of A Touch of Sin which, though it got state approval to go to the 2013 Cannes festival, where it won best-screenplay honours, was subsequently denied screening rights in China proper. Communist authorities also placed a ban on any media coverage of the film, including interviews with Jia, purportedly because of its "social negativity." While the movie has played on the Web, it remains unscreened in Chinese theatres.

"We're still in discussions," was all Jia would say of the film's fate last September. In the meantime, the man one U.S. critic has described as "perhaps the most important filmmaker working in the world today" must still submit a 1,500-word synopsis of whatever film he plans to shoot to the Chinese Film Bureau and, if requested, deliver the full script and "make adjustments accordingly."

Jia goes along with the requirement because, he said, "I want every one of my films to play inside China and this is just part of the process that everyone has to go through. But it doesn't affect the way I conceive and shoot my films: I have complete artistic freedom when it comes to making them. But then afterwards I have to do everything I can to show them in China. And if that's not possible, then that's not possible."

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