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Review: A moody, arty film counts groups of 3 to let 1 ‘Depart’

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Zhao Tao stars in “Mountains May Depart.”

“Mountains May Depart”

Not rated


Opens today at Kahala 8

Three times in “Mountains May Depart,” the latest from 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’s expressed by a series of rapid explosions in the river, suggesting a drowning world.

Few filmmakers working today look as deeply at the changing world as 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 (Jia’s birthplace). 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. 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 the 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. Jia doesn’t reference the video, but it’s likely he used the cover partly because of its post-Soviet bloc resonance. Whatever the case, it’s a lovely, festive scene that suggests that everyone is in a party (or Party) mood. When Tao and the others form a conga line it seems as if they have decided to take the song literally:

Together, we will go our way

Together, we will leave someday

Together, your hand in my hands

Together, we will make our plans

Jia never over-explains his work. The dance feels triumphant, at once choreographed and spontaneous, but there’s no immediate reason for it, even when the date 1999 appears on-screen. It isn’t until the next scene, when Tao is trading New Year’s greetings, that the dance feels tethered to a rationale. By that point, though, you will have had time to think about the dance, to turn it around in your head, consider its possibilities and wonder whether the revelers are spontaneously dancing or celebrating the end of the millennium or the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic. Or perhaps the scene has more to do with Tao, a woman who smiles and who dances.

Ambiguity is a defining characteristic of the European art cinema; at its most cliched, directorial solipsism is mistaken for mystery and empty images are turned into endlessly masticated cud for cultists. Although Jia is obviously conversant with the European art film — and East Asian cinema and Hollywood and so forth — he has carved out his own ways of making cinematic meaning, an approach that draws on different idioms and traditions. He occasionally folds an image into the mix that can feel enigmatic, but that over time make sense when considered in the context of the movie as a whole. A shot of an old-fashioned pagoda may not make ready sense, may even look like picture-postcard scenery, yet by the end of the movie it may make you weep.

Jia has characterized “Mountains May Depart” as his most emotional movie, which may underplay how deeply moving his work can be. While he invariably addresses larger cultural, social and political issues, sometimes openly, at other times obliquely, what makes his work memorable is how those larger forces are etched in the faces and bodies of his characters, in the coal dust that defines one man’s reality — and, by extension, one China — and the hard mask that defines another truth, another China. Here, when Tao first walks down a street flanked by modest brick buildings, she is moving through a country that is rapidly being lost to what’s optimistically called development. By the end, she is living in a new world even if, Jia suggests, her soul remains in the old.


In Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

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