Each act in Mountains May Depart, Zhangke Jia's latest disquisition on China in the 21st Century, takes place in a different time period with a steadily escalating aspect ratio: 1999 in 1.33:1, 2014 in 1.85:1, and 2025 in 2.35:1. As time moves forward, the possibilities expand in kind, with the frame opening up from the dust-choked mines of the northern Shanxi province to accommodate the sleek modernity of Shanghai and tomorrowland Australia. Unlike the theme park in Jia's 2004 film The World, where tourists gather to behold tacky facsimiles of famous monuments they'll never be able to visit, the capitalist boom in Mountains May Depart carries its characters far beyond their provincial roots. Here, the couple that poses for engagement photos in front of a matte backdrop of the Sydney Opera House has some hope of seeing the real thing.
Yet millennial progress exacts its own terrible price, just as it did in Still Life and Dong, Jia's fiction and nonfiction duo from 2006 about the communities uprooted to make room for the Three Gorges Dam, and in 24 City, his peculiar 2008 hybrid about the ruins of capitalism's broken promises. No director has done more to chronicle change in contemporary China and the instability it breeds in the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. But there's a foreground/background problem that continues to plague his work, a weakness for losing the smaller picture in pursuit of the bigger one. The forces of history tend to overwhelm the banal souls in front of the camera, who are more representative than real.
The second and third acts bring the consequences of divorce, illness, and regret.
Jia's last film, A Touch of Sin, solved this problem through the relative sketch-work of what played as four short, focused films. But the broader canvas of Mountains May Depart leaves his weaknesses more exposed. Set in Jia's hometown of Fenyang, the first and longest of the three acts is by far the most affecting, despite the schematic rigging of a love triangle involving the beautiful Tao (Tao Zhao, Jia's wife and frequent star) and suitors of contrasting means. Tao settles for the wealthy, callous Zhang (Yi Zhang) over self-effacing coal miner Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang), and the couple moves to Shanghai. The second and third acts bring the consequences of divorce, illness, and regret and introduce a fourth major character in Tao and Zhang's son, whom the young titan of industry has named "Dollar."
"You are my dad, but it's like Google Translate is your real son," a now-grown Dollar (Zijian Dong) cries a decade later. The line lands poorly in part because it's delivered in English, Jia's nonnative tongue, but also because it's too freighted in significance — Dollar literally and figuratively cannot speak his father's language. He represents a generation ruined by money — disconnected from family, from country, from purpose. It's a powerful idea in the abstract, the culmination of three acts that cover a 25-year catastrophe with a time-lapse breathlessness. It just never leaves the abstract to become flesh.