“Life does repeat itself. That’s why it feels… familiar,” states a character towards the end of Mountains May Depart, the superb latest film from Jia Zhangke, which premiered at Cannes back in May, and which is now screening in the “Journey” section at the 2015 London Film Festival.
Continuity and change, what’s repeatable and what’s forever lost, are very much the concerns of Mountains May Depart, which follows its characters over a 25-year period. Beginning on the cusp of the millennium, at a moment of great hope and possibility, the movie starts out as a love triangle, with the flashy, volatile capitalist Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and the miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) competing for the affections of Tao (Zhao Tao) in Fenyang. The fallout of Tao’s choice is revealed as the movie leaps ahead in time: first to 2014, and then to Australia in 2025.
Not surprisingly, given that its director once harboured ambitions to be a novelist, Mountains May Depart unfolds at the absorbing pace of a rich, substantial literary text. The movie’s two abrupt but elegant temporal jumps, requiring the viewer to effectively “catch up” with the characters’ lives, have something of Alice Munro about them. As always, Jia remains an astute chronicler of changes in Chinese society, carefully showing the ways in which economic and cultural forces impact upon the lives of individuals.
Yet such an awareness is never crudely expressed, and it never obscure the human drama, either. If there’s one sequence that sums up the special, humanist appeal of Mountains May Depart it’s the one in which Tao and Zhang are reunited after a long separation. Delicately underplayed by Liang and Tao (who is absolutely fantastic throughout), the scene movingly presents an encounter between two characters now starkly opposed in terms of economic power yet who are still deeply connected to each other by their past.
As it progresses, Mountains May Depart reveals itself to be a film about the pain of mother/child separation and, more broadly, a film about the experiences of Chinese exiles, losing a sense of their history and heritage as they adjust to life in the West. Some critics have questioned Jia’s handling of the Australia section of the film, and I noticed that one scene which drew some unfortunate giggles at Cannes has now been snipped. In fact, the Australia sequences are crucial to the movie’s structure and effect, and to its exploration of distances that are at once geographic, temporal and emotional. (The section is also notable for featuring, without fuss or histrionics, a genuinely transgressive relationship.)
As often in Jia’s work, pop songs are also crucial to the movie: here it’s the Sally Yeh ballad “Take Care” and the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Go West” that are featured. The latter song bookends the film, bringing the picture full circle for a poignant, perfectly judged coda that’s equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. A terrific companion piece to the movie is also provided by the documentary Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang, an insightful and affectionate portrait of the filmmaker directed by Walter Salles, which is also screening at the Festival. “You might call the characters in my films ‘non-holders of power’,” Jia tells Salles. “It’s hard to prevent change… What I can do is record it in my films.”
As tightly coiled as Mountains May Depart is beautifully open and expansive, James White also places a mother-son relationship at its centre, but here that relationship is defined by proximity rather than distance. This film is the latest offering from the Borderline collective, the enterprising group of NYU alums comprising Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond who, with works such as Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and Simon Killer (2012), have proved that there’s still hope for inventive, serious-minded American independent cinema, after all.
This time out its Mond’s turn to take the directing reigns, and the results are sensational. James White plays very much as a companion piece to Campos’s Simon Killer: it’s another intense psychodrama focusing on a volatile male protagonist. But the movie turns out to be Simon Killer’s tenderer, kinder cousin. The eponymous character here (played by Christopher Abbott, of Girls) is no psychopath-in-the-making as was Brady Corbet’s Simon. Rather, James is a directionless young New Yorker, dealing with his grief over his estranged father’s death and with the illness of his mother (Cynthia Nixon), whom he’s been nursing through cancer.
James White might be described as a hipster weepie. But don’t let that put you off. At times abrasive, with edgy elements of visual and aural dissonance, the movie is an intense, sensory experience. Yet the picture also has surprising warmth. Easily dismissed as a slacker and “a mess” (and he is, a bit), James is also shown to have great potential, and to be a competent caretaker for his mother, too.
Some secondary characters (such as a girl whom James hooks up with on a Mexico trip) are under written. But the movie’s final third is unforgettable, as the picture hones down to a two-hander for Abbott and Nixon, who perform with absolute bravery and conviction. Both graced and grueling, these final scenes scrape many raw nerves, and a monologue in which Nixon’s character urges James (and herself) to inhabit not just the “highs and lows” of life but “all the spaces in between” is one of the most potent and revelatory moments that 2015’s cinema has offered.
Some films start out so perfectly that it’s painful when they begin to go off the rails. Such is Andrew Steggall’s Departure, also the director’s debut film, which focuses on the experiences of a British mother and son in France. Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) and Elliott (Alex Lawther) have arrived to pack up their country house in preparation to sell it, a task which Beatrice seems decidedly reluctant to undertake. Elliott, meanwhile, is having his head turned by a local boy, Clément (Phénix Brossard), with whom he ends up falling in love.
Quiet and restful, yet with suggestions of underlying tension and unease, the opening scenes of Departure are marvellous, recalling the ambience of Francois Ozon’s Le Refuge (Hideaway) (2009), and with some suggestions of Joanna Hogg’s work, too. Stevenson and Lawther are a wonderful match : Beatrice’s attempts to connect with her son, and his pulling away from her, are insightfully drawn. (“How did you get to be so big?” Beatrice asks. “Incrementally,” is Elliott’s terse reply.)
Lawther – who played the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014) and one of the maths prodigies in X + Y (2014) – is a terrific talent, and he gives a beautiful, nuanced performance here. He never makes Elliott – a budding writer who’s not averse to the odd spot of petty theft – too easily likeable, and he compellingly details the character’s sexual awakening, his mix of precociousness and awkwardness.
Stephenson is great too, revealing Beatrice to be a deeply disappointed woman who’s lost direction in her life due to her acquiescence to her husband’s demands. A pivotal scene between her and a neighbour (Niamh Cusack) is one of the many delicately played and memorable scenes of the movie’s first half.
Alas, Departure loses its way as it progresses, becoming slightly tiresome and masochistic in its focus on family angst. The appearance of Elliott’s father (Finbar Lynch) doesn’t take the film in the interesting directions it promises to, and a revelation about this character fails to convince. There’s also an increasing tendency towards the visually fussy and the heavily symbolic that diminishes the picture’s quiet power. Still, while it’s disappointing that Departure doesn’t quite live up to its potential, the special ambience created in its first half is certainly enough to mark Steggall out as a talent to watch.