Jia Zhangke's Changing China

By Dargis, Manohla | International New York Times, February 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Jia Zhangke's Changing China


Dargis, Manohla, International New York Times


The film, which begins in 1999, shows changes in personal relationships and in the country itself.

Mountains May Depart. Directed by Jia Zhangke.

Three times in "Mountains May Depart," the latest from the transformative Chinese director Jia Zhangke, people stand near a river that weaves through the landscape like a snake. In the first instance, three friends light fireworks that send out modest sparks. In the second, only two return to the river, where they ignite a bundle of dynamite. By the third trip, only one of the original three remains, everyone's life having changed as profoundly as China, a cataclysm that is expressed by a series of rapid explosions in the river, suggesting a drowning world.

Few filmmakers today look as deeply at the changing world as Mr. Jia does, or make the human stakes as vivid. The three sending out those sparks are Tao (Zhao Tao), and her two close male friends, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). An affable, easygoing drifter with an expansive smile, Tao works in a small store in the city of Fenyang (Mr. Jia's birthplace). Mr. Jia likes a slow reveal and it isn't initially obvious that Tao is the movie's emotional organizing principle whose feelings run, surge and erupt. The story tracks Tao and her relations with both Liangzi, who works at a coal mine, and Jinsheng, a budding entrepreneur.

Eventually, Tao chooses one man over the other, a decision that fractures the trio and sends the narrative spiraling in different directions. Mr. Jia's approach means that you have to do a certain amount of interpretive work, though mostly you just have to pay attention and be a little patient. If you do, you will notice that "Mountains May Depart" is a movie of threes: its main characters, moments in time, narrative sections, historical symbols and even aspect ratio come in triplicate. This schematic quality isn't necessarily obvious on first viewing, even though the story's time frames -- 1999, 2014 and 2025 -- are announced on-screen and accompanied by a corresponding increase in the size of the image, an enlargement that mirrors the character's expanding universe.

When the movie opens in 1999, for instance, Tao is right in middle of the action (and the frame), dancing with a large group to the Pet Shop Boys' dementedly catchy 1993 cover of "Go West," an old Village People tune. The original music video for the Pet Shop Boys' version, an exuberantly surreal pageant, includes shots of Red Square and Vladimir Lenin. Mr. Jia doesn't reference the video, but it's likely he used the cover partly because of its post-Soviet bloc resonance. …

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