Mountains May Depart

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/23/16 04:50:55

"Good in both past, present, and future."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The future is just as much a part of our lives as the past, but it often makes storytellers wary. Who wants to remembered for guessing wrong on details, let alone major happenings? Is risky, but sometimes your story has to extend that far in order to fully express what is teller is getting at, the way "Mountains May Depart" ("Shan he gu ren" in Mandarin) does. Its unconventional third act is not all that makes it an intriguing and noteworthy drama, though it is an essential part of the story.

The seeds, of course, are laid in the past, when 25-year-old beauty Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) has two suitors - "elite" Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), whose wealthy family owns the local gas station among other things, and Liang Jangjung (Liang Jing-dong), who like most of their town of Fenying has a job tied to the nearby coal mine. Though the coal is running out, Jinsheng buys the mine, which turns out to be a decent short-term investment as the price of coal goes up. By 2014, things aren't going so well for everyone; Tao is divorced, with her son Daole living with his father in Shanghai, while her other suitor is returning home in ill health. In 2025, "Dollar" (Dong Zijian) is living in Melbourne, 18 years old, barely able to communicate with the increasingly bitter father who has never really learned English, and the most interest he has in any of his classes involves Mia (Sylvia Chang), the fortyish but still striking teacher of his Mandarin class.

Mining towns like Fenying are dying all around the world; someone watching this in West Virginia would probably nod sadly at how familiar some of it is, even though writer/director Jia Zhangke seldom directly addresses the town as a whole rather than Tao, her friends, and her family. It's still an important reflection of what the characters do - in the past, the mine is something everybody practically takes for granted even if they know intellectually that it can't last forever, but the middle section of the movie lingers on death, whether it be the inevitable decay associated with mining coal or simple age. Jia doesn't portray Fenying as a ghost town at that point, but it's still very clear that the future is elsewhere, with Doale clearly not there for more than a visit in the middle and only the briefest of glimpses of the town.

The image reflects the passing of time and changing of attitude in ways you can't miss, as Jia and cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai change the screen's aspect ratio from one segment to another. The opening act is in the tight academy/analog-television ratio, and at times it almost seems as if this was a decision made after the fact; things get cut off a lot, or just look too tight. This is the past, though, and sometimes one sees it with a incomplete view, or in hazy fashion, as things meant to establish a sense of the time rather than tell Tao's story look like VHS home movies. The picture widens for the present, giving a clear view of what Fenying is like now, while the future extends to full widescreen to better give a view of the clear skies of Australia. Subtle changes as locations are revisited highlight how things both change and stay the same.

Which, obviously, extends to the cast. Liang Jing-dong, to be honest, looks a bit weathered to be playing a 25-year-old in the opening act, but it's maybe not unexpected given the setting. He has both easy affability as the boy-next-door that Tao should choose and beat-down resignation later on, quietly crushing. Zhang Yi has a similar two-part performance, as he lets Jingsheng's truly oily nature emerge in the beginning but plays defiantly pathetic later on, making it seem like where this guy was destined to end up. Dong Zijian and Sylvia Chang make an interesting odd couple in the last act, both disconnected from their past but with "Dollar" obviously not as aware of this as Mia.

It's Zhao Tao as Shen Tao who ties the three segments together, assisted by a make-up department that makes her look right no matter what the era. She's on an emotional roller coaster at times, in the second act especially, but there's an impressive steadiness to her that makes the outbursts of anger and grief more emphatic. She and Jia create a woman who is probably more attached to her hometown than most can afford to be, a survivor who does not become terribly hardened.

It's a sweet little movie that, perhaps, could have substituted an earlier segment where the town is prosperous rather than an uncertain tomorrow, but there's something fitting about the way this one looks to the future and doesn't quite end. That's not always the case with this sort of generational tale, but it serves this one well.

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