Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
In Jia Zhang-ke’s epic Mountains May Depart, a man, woman, and son—family members stripped apart over time—are featured in three episodic sections. Similar in structure to the recent American film The Place Beyond the Pines (Cianfrance, 2013), Mountains too carries a sense of family passage, however, in this case the focus is on family members who were once support blocks now become voids. Set in 1999, 2014, and 2015, it first focuses on a man chasing a woman, then the woman left alone and robbed of her son, and finally the son estranged from his mother and neglected by his father.
Of major focus is the mother, who is centrally featured in all three sequences, and whose story of departing loved ones is most tragic. Left by her husband, her closest friend (who passes away), and her son (taken from her), she epitomizes the notion of longing for what once was but has since gone. Opening and closing on a pop song-and-dance, the film uses repetition with variation by first showing a group dancing to the song and second showing only Tao (Tao Zhao), old and alone and melancholy. A highly poignant ending to a rather banal film, this final shot expresses the film’s central theme of pain felt after love lost.
At a concert, patrons are seen pushing against one another. After a photograph, a group disperses into the street. These two scenes most lucidly convey the central conflict between togetherness and departure. There are some brilliant moments scattered within the film, but ultimately Mountains May Depart is unexceptional and rather tedious. A musical motif, heard both via a piano and a guitar, first appears emotionally affecting, but after it is played to exhaustion it begins to lose the audience. In a similar manner, the film’s cinematography and style too exhaust the viewer as it moves from tender expression to pulp and science fiction. Perhaps it is because Tao is the most interesting character, or perhaps it is due to this exhaustion of style, but the first segment is significantly more interesting than the latter two.
“Though time passes, not all things change,” is stated by Sylvia Chang, a noted filmmaker who performs the role of Mia. This statement perhaps suggests that though time passes, certain feelings remain present and departing does not necessarily mean ending. While heartfelt and stated near the film’s ending, when there is a slight sense of hope in Dollar’s (Zijian Dong) actions, it also contradicts the film’s ongoing themes, thus convoluting Zhang-ke’s expression of pain in love. For reasons like this, amongst others, Mountains May Depart fails to produce an authentic family portrait or expression of love, change, and passing.
Mountains May Depart fails to produce an authentic family portrait or expression of love, change, and passing.