in Chinese discos around 1999, “Go West” was like “The Final Countdown” in
Czech dance clubs. When they played it, everybody hit the dancefloor. However,
when you heard the Pet Shop Boys’ cover, you knew it was 12:00 sharp, the start
of a new day. It heralds the dawn of a new era, but not necessarily a better one
in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (clip here), which screens as
a Main Slate selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.
Tao and her friends are going to party like it is 1999, because it is. New Year
is approaching, when she will once again sing Fenyang’s big celebratory song.
Obviously, the school teacher is the village sweetheart, but the well-heeled
wheeler-dealer Zhang Jinsheng and her dirt poor childhood chum Liangzi are
particularly smitten. A traditional love triangle forms, but Shen is (perhaps
willfully) unaware how dirty Zhang is willing to fight.
most objective measures, she makes the wrong choice and deals with the
consequences in the second act set during 2014. Divorced from Zhang, Shen lives
a comfortable life as Fenyang’s leading patroness, but it is a lonely existence
without her seven year old son Dollar, as his father insisted on naming him,
which pretty much tells you what you need to know about Zhang. However, she
gets a poignant reminder of what might have been when the long absent Liangzi
returns to Fenyang with his family and a nasty case of black lung.
2014 arc concludes with Shen attempting to make some sort of peace with Dollar
before he immigrates to Australia with Zhang and his trophy wife. Flashing
forward to 2025, the eighteen year-old can hardly remember his mother. Zhang’s
dodgy dealings have caught up with them, causing no end of embarrassment for
the son. For obvious Freudian reasons, Dollar explores an ambiguously romantic
relationship with his professor Mia, a Hong Kong immigrant (by way of Toronto)
who happens to be about Shen’s age.
the 1999 and 2014 sections include documentary footage Jia shot before knowing
they would have a place in Mountains,
but not the 2025 segment, at least not as far as we know. Frankly, the opening
scene of Jia’s muse and now wife Zhao Tao leading a “Go West” get-down is so infectious,
it demanded a film be crafted around. Yet, following its sheer retro joy, the
rest of the film down-shifts, maintaining an exquisitely bittersweet vibe.
match his vintage footage, all of the 1999 scenes are in boxy Academy ratio (as
per the state of digital cameras at the time) and feature vivid saturated
colors (especially the crimson reds of Shen’s wardrobe). In accordance with
technological advances and increased pollution, Jia cranks up the 2014 scenes
to standard ratio and dilutes the colors, while the 2025 Australian sequences
are shot in sterile looking widescreen. You can also notice the population
density of the streets and the screen precipitously decline.
is all rather fitting and clever as a commentary on the impact of technology on
human relationships, but what really sticks with you is Jia’s characteristic
use of pop songs, which has never been as poignant. In addition to The Pet Shop
Boys, HK Cantopop superstar Sally Yeh’s love songs rouse all kinds of
sentimental and nostalgic feelings, in the way only effective pop tunes can.
Tao is absolutely perfect for Shen Tao. She truly looks ageless and timeless, yet
she can eerily convey so much through so such subtle expression. Probably
nobody working in film today can hold an audience rapt with a silent close-up
as long as she can. Your heart aches for her, but you have to respect Shen for
accepting responsibility for her mistakes and carrying on with dignity.
brings more than enough presence for any film, but Mountains also has the revered Sylvia Chang, hot on the heels of Office after a five year absence from film.
Few people have her combination of maturity and sensuality that is so aptly
suited for Mia. Think of her as a potential HK Helen Mirren, in a few years’
time. There are no end of pitfalls to depicting May-Septemberish relationships,
but she develops convincingly imperfect chemistry with Dong Zijian’s Dollar
that makes it work in dramatic terms.
The more you think about Mountains, the more it gets into your head and your soul. It is the
sort of film that might break you out in tears later in the night rather than
while you are in the theater, which is rather considerate of it, really. It is
also further proof that Zhao Tao is the finest screen actress of our
generation, bar none. Very highly recommended, Mountains May Depart screens again tonight (9/29) at the Beale
Theater, as part of this year’s NYFF.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Jia Zhangke, NYFF '15, Sylvia Chang, Zhao Tao