Whatever is left of China at the start of Jia Zhangke’s epic triptych Mountains May Depart, it isn’t a place for which anyone will feel nostalgic. The first scene, set in 1999 in the small northern city of Fenyang, seems shrouded in grey. The crumbling brick buildings and bare landscape denote the only work that seems on offer here, at a coal mine.
Still, this is a time of economic boom, when China is transforming into an industrial powerhouse the likes of which had never been seen before. The film goes on to reveal the costs of that era’s sky-high promises of prosperity and accompanying irrational exuberance.
The first segment offers a scenario that might almost suit a a romantic comedy. Tao (Zhao Tao), the beautiful daughter of a local merchant, is being propositioned by two suitors, neither a man she would choose on her own. Lingzi (Liang Jingdong) is a stolid and dependable coal miner and Zhang (Zhang Yi) is the giddily overconfident owner of a gas station whose business dealings are about to make him wealthy. From love to money, everybody thinks they can have it all.
Zhang’s cocky demands for Tao to choose him and dump the coal miner are so obnoxious they seem doomed to failure. Like some black-hat nouveau-riche villain out of a 19th century novel about the pitfalls of a suddenly mercantilist society, he humblebrags about being too busy even to bundle up all the cash he has coming in. Tao’s indecision is hard to parse at first. But the echoes of fading local traditions, like the exuberant spring festival in which she performs, suggest she’s baffled by current cultural shifts.
Amid the movie’s stylized melodrama, even the soundtrack choices indicate changes, from the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” (“We will leave someday”) to Sally Yeh’s melancholy “Take Care”.
Everyone’s options become more bewildering once the story jumps into its following segments, set in 2014 and 2025, to play out the results of her desultory love triangle against the backdrop of still more transformations. Shifting from the square Academy ratio to a broader widescreen format, the film becomes more spacious and yet also emptied of people. The drab Chinese landscape and stooped migrant workers are the same in some scenes, but the screen is increasingly populated by high-speed trains, airports, and new highways. For all the activity, the build-up doesn’t seem quite like progress.
Further on in the near future, Chinese expatriates while away their sun-splashed days at a coastal golf resort while their English-speaking children — one named “Dollar” by a parent in a fit of economic bullishness some years earlier — study Chinese language and culture just as they would any other course. A teacher and student carry on an affair like something they’ve seen in a movie. A bored expat stockpiles guns, impotently grousing about the limits of his supposed freedom (he has, he says, “a pile of guns and no one to fire them at”). Nobody knows quite where they are or where they’re headed, even as the future, as the movie imagines it, comes barreling at them.
Zhangke takes broad aim here, much as he did in his last film, 2013’s stark and crackling morality play A Touch of Sin. While Mountains May Depart is more arch and ironic, it’s also another state-of-the-nation address, mournful and occasionally surreal. Some elements don’t quite cohere, such as the returning motif of fireworks and explosions. (Why do people keep setting off explosives in the frozen river in Fenyang? The symbolism manages to be both overstated and obscure.)
Such confusion might be understood to reflect that felt by Tao and her family. It’s amplified by the third segment’s English dialogue, which sounds rough-hewed.
Still, the film finds a cumulative power in its imagery, from the crowds swaying in an almost unconscious unison during a festival to the old man who dies quietly in a chair at a station and is surrounded by priests who pray for him. For all their material wealth, individuals feel isolated and spiritually lost, their journey the film turns from prose into poetry.