In 1999, when Mountains May Depart begins, Jia Zhangke had directed one feature film, Xiao Wu, a neorealist-inflected character study of a pickpocket. In the years since, his films have continued to attend to the lives of average residents of his hometown of Fenyang, as they live through seismic social changes for which mere realism seems increasingly inadequate. The World used the colossal metaphor of Beijing’s World Park, and animated SMS messages, to evoke the heady tease of globalization; Still Life dabbled in magic realism; documentaries like 24 City and I Wish I Knew mediated history through the movies and other fictions; and genre, increasingly, plays a large role in Jia’s films. That a character can set out to make his fortune, and become life- and mise-en-scène-alteringly rich in the course of one or two time-elapsing fade-outs is both a fact (or prevalent myth) of life in early 21st century China, and a melodramatic contrivance of studio-era Hollywood. Both of these truths inform the sprawling, very moving Mountains May Depart.
The film is set in 1999, 2014 and 2025. It begins with a rich-man-poor-man love triangle between Shen Tao (Jia’s wife and constant collaborator Zhao Tao), the up-and-coming businessman Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), and coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong). Jia and his regular DP Yu Lik Wai deftly group and isolate the characters together in the squarish frame, but the overbright soap-opera-ish lighting and banal dialogue complicate the almost Sirkian resonances of the drama—at a crucial moment, customers play a Cantopop ballad by Shelley Yeh to test a CD player in Shen’s father’s electronics shop, and the lush, transportingly romantic orchestration drops into their lives like pennies from heaven.
The song recurs in the 2014 section, as Shen and her young son Dollar(!) listen to it on earbuds; and again in 2025, in Australia, as Dollar listens to it on vinyl with the woman (Hong Kong star Sylvia Chang) who’s teaching him, and others, the Chinese language he’s forgotten. The song remains the same even as the film’s aspect ratio and lighting schemes changes for each chapter; characters drop in and out of the movie as time passes, but songs and objects—keys, a sweater, a wedding invitation—have surprising resilience, or recur as déjà vu. Tao’s puppy in 1999 is a beloved old pet by 2014, and she walks another dog to a by-now familiar Fenyang location in 2025, playing beautifully on the disorientations of time and the persistence of memory.
In his ambitious, inventive reach from millennial optimism (set back in time with a mix of retro digital formats and stock footage) to booming capitalism and its discontents, to future-tech and nostalgic exile, Jia continues to mix the stuff of classic melodrama—old flames reuniting, loved ones dying, parents sacrificing all for their children—with the deliberate pacing and repressed lyricism of all his dramas. The film’s title may be a reference to mining, which symbolizes the socioeconomic phases the film passes through; it also suggests the startling impermanence of even nature itself.