In what looks like a half-empty hotel lobby, coated in a cheap, imperial-gold paint, about a dozen Chinese people dance in unison to “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys. Tao (Tao Zhao), the town beauty, leads the dance gleefully as the lyrics ring out in chorus: “Go West, life is peaceful there / Go West, in the open air.” Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s newest film follows the lives of those on screen, Tao and her two love interests, over a period of twenty-five years. Their stories move from the dawn of the new millennium in a dreary Chinese mining village to an unnervingly pristine Australia in the year 2025. Director Jia traces his country’s economic and cultural transition with an attentive eye to how the lives of individuals have transformed in the social rollercoaster that China and Chinese culture has experienced over the last twenty years.
In its attempt to document this gradual transformation, the film is segmented into three different time periods: 1999, 2014, and 2025. Jia’s vision of a China facing the new millennium, during the first 50 minutes of the film, proves to be the most captivating. The plot follows the romantic interests of Tao as she is courted by two men, one a miner and the other an up-and-coming capitalist. (She chooses the capitalist.) Melodrama of the soapiest kind–confrontations in clubs, awkward three person dates–heightens the class tensions on screen. The excitement or intellectual depth one might reasonably expect from this setup is tempered by the uneven telling of these characters’ stories. The film moves between different portraits of people around her life, though the plots themselves rarely advance the story beyond basic tropes: Tao marries for money rather than love; tragedy ensues. The grey, dreary landscape of the first scenes, showing a Chinese mining town caught between early industrialization and traditional culture, proves be a far more compelling character than Tao herself, with its own narrative during the course of the movie.
Tao’s village transforms drastically from one scene to the next; bikes and cheap Vespas are replaced with cars and bullet trains, abandoned homes and rinky-dink shops become high-rise condos. One of the final images of the first chapter shows a mob of people in a dark busy street, anticipating the new year, indistinguishable as one solid block of life. The scenery seems discordant with the town we see 15 years later, where Americans stroll with their young Chinese brides and give each other engraved iPhones at wedding receptions. Even that rousing rendition of “Go West” makes its point all too forcefully, as if the lobbygoers aren’t singing a song but are being forced to perform a symbolic act.
The story is a familiar one of cultural displacement and the corrupting power of mammon. Though Jia’s theme carries the intensity of an unsung and vitally important contemporary story, it is frustrating in its dogmatic rigidity. Characters and their relationships seem built on thematic cohesion as tropes rather than as people. The film’s narrative dullness is frustratingly out of line with its deeply genuine visual language. Jia operates best in bursts of visual imagination: a Chinese funeral populated with bright outfits interrupts a gray, industrial landscape on the side of the road. An old man dies in his sleep waiting at a train station, while a group of monks check his pressure silently and begin to pray in quiet.
Mountains May Depart, like other films by Jia Zhangke, attempts to document the lives of people that deserve to be documented. It tells the story of a Chinese generation caught between a dreary economic past and tottering, alienating rollercoaster towards wealth. A broad narrative of the changes wrought on Chinese citizens over the last twenty years becomes clear, but the individual stories of Tao, her son, and the people of her village, as real people, are stilted, and their own vitality is ultimately lost in the creation of this social manifesto.
The 53rd New York Film Festival ran from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.