The twenty-first century’s new dawn
By Zeke Trautenberg
L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, begins with Leo, the disillusioned sexagenarian narrator recounting his discovery of a diary from his childhood. Reading through this diary from 1900 brings the narrator’s “buried memories” of childhood to the surface. He recalls how his adolescent-self fantasized about the unfolding century as “the dawn of a Golden Age.” In his narration, Leo tells how his young and impressionable self loses his innocence and his hope for a bright new century.
Jia Zhangke’s film Mountains May Depart is a fitting companion to Hartley’s seminal coming-of-age novel. Zhangke’s film is both an allegorical representation of China during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and the story of disillusion and rupture of an upwardly mobile middle-class family caught up in this turbulent epoch.
In The Go-Between the elder Leo describes the first five decades of the twentieth century as “the most changeful half a century in history.” While this may well be true in the West, in China the economic, social, and political changes of the final three decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first fundamentally altered the lives of its billion-plus citizens. The economy of the country experienced a gradual, if fundamental transformation under in the late 1970s, which rapidly accelerated in the 1990s. The country’s shift towards a state-capitalist model resulted in vertiginous economic expansion, with annual GDP growth measured over seven percent every year from 1991 to 2014. In 2010 the country replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The social and demographic changes during this period occur on an enormous scale, with millions of Chinese moving out of poverty and the population shifting towards a majority-urban nation. The social contract between citizens and the state underwent a fundamental revision as well: the one-party state’s political legitimacy—including its right to repress its citizens— became tied to consistently high levels of economic growth.
The first scene of the film captures this transformative and heady epoch of economic liberalization and social change. It is new year’s eve 1999, the bookend of young Leo’s Golden Age. The camera pushes towards a group of revelers moving slightly out of sync to the Pet Shop Boy’s 1993 song “Go West.” The upbeat disco-inflected song promises a hopeful future of mutual uplift and optimism: “We will go our way / We will leave someday / Your hand in my hand.” Behind the dancers hangs a giant crystal chandelier, a fitting symbol of their outsized expectations of the new millennium. Front and center is Tao (Zhangke’s wife and frequent collaborator Tao Zhao), who moves joyfully across the stage, ushering in this new era.
The film’s plot is set in motion by a love triangle. Two men at the new year celebration are courting Tao: the aspiring small businessman Zhang (Yi Zhang) and the working class Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang). All three live in Fenyang (Zhangke’s birthplace), in the northern province of Shanxi. The class divide between the three is apparent: Tao is the daughter of a small merchant, Zhang owns a gas station, and the working-class Liangzi operates a helmet store at a local coal mine. As the two men compete for Tao’s affection, they become increasingly confrontational. When he cannot get his hands on a gun Zhang purchases dynamite to blow up his rival. Meanwhile, Liangzi refers derisively to Zhang as “elite” and ignores the gas station owner’s demand to stay away from Tao.
In a fateful choice, the jovial and sensitive Tao decides to marry the short-tempered and impulsive Zhang. Although she never explains her choice, he is the fitting man for the moment— Zhang is China’s aspirational capitalism personified. The remainder of the film depicts the consequences of Tao’s choice and the dissolution of her family. This emphasis on loss is underscored Tao’s admonition to her estranged son: “Nobody can be with you all through life. We’re fated to be apart.”
Zhangke’s film spans three years: 1999, 2014, and 2025. The tripartite temporal division exemplifies the film’s wide allegorical scope. The film depicts an entire epoch of contemporary China, which extends into the near future. Like Zhangke’s similarly ambitious, four-part A Touch of Sin (2013), Mountains May Depart incorporates a range of themes in its representation of contemporary China, including internal and external migration, the heavy cost of pollution and environmental degradation, changing gender roles, and class divisions.
The formal elements of Mountains May Depart mirror its structure. Zhangke and director of photography Nelson Lik-Wai Yu employ three different aspect ratios in the film, one for each act. The first act (1999) is shot in a 1:37 aspect ratio, while the second (2014) and third (2025) acts are shot in 1:85 and 2:35 widescreen aspect ratios, respectively. The widening of the screen reflects both the expansion of the narrative’s geographic scope—the first and second acts take place almost entirely in Fenyang and the third act is set in Australia—, and changes in technology. For example, 1:37 Academy aspect ratio used in the first third of the film approximates that of traditional television (1:33), and Zhangke plays off this similarity in his use of abstract and documentary-like interludes in the first act. Among the most notable of these sequences is infrared images of dancing red-hot bodies intercut with shots of sweaty revelers at a club. Sequences like this one blur the division between fiction and documentary filmmaking, and inject human-like asymmetry into the film’s otherwise rigorously symmetrical plot and structure.
In Mountains May Depart Zhangke employs complex formal and structural elements to tell the story of a family and society come undone by sweeping social and economic change. The film depicts a nation at the start of the new millennium brimming with promise— a “new dawn” as one character puts it. However, this optimism is soon eclipsed by the consequences of unhinged economic development and the ensuing social displacement. As in Zhangke’s 2006 film Still Life, which depicts the fallout of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Mountains May Depart depicts the tragic consequences of China’s far-reaching economic and social structural shifts. The human cost of these development is underscored by the recurrence of the Pet Shop Boy’s song in the final scene of the film. As snow falls silently, blanketing the fallow landscape, the song reverberates, not as an anthem of hope and fraternity, but as the ironic soundtrack to Tao’s quarter-century of solitude.
Director: Jia Zhangke
Running Time: 131 minutes
Photos: Shanghai Film Group Corp./Xstream Pictures/MK Prods./Beijing Runjin Investment/Office Kitano