Mountains May Depart: Jia Zhanke on Chinese Society–Past, Present, and Future

Jia Zhangke’s new film, Mountains May Depart, spans the past, the present and the future, going from 1999 to 2014 and then to 2025.

China’s economic development began to skyrocket in the 1990s. Living in this surreal economic environment has inevitably changed the ways that people deal with their emotions. The impulse behind this film is to examine the effect of putting financial considerations ahead of emotional relationships.

On one level, the film is a romantic melodrama, revolving around the relationships within one family and the forces that initially unite and then threaten to separate them. On another, it offers sharp commentary on the rapidly changing state of China’s socio-economic-political conditions and their negative impact on human relationships and feelings.

Opening in rural Shaanxi, it follows a good-souled mine worker (Liang Jin Dong) competing with a self-absorbed entrepreneur (Zhang Li) for the heart of their childhood crush, a shop girl (Zhao Tao).  Her choice, reflecting changing social values, collapses the friendship.

In the next installment, her son Dollar (Dong Zijian) has moved to Shanghai with his prosperous father.

In the third, he is a young man living in future-modernist luxury in Australia, and has forgotten his isolated mother.

Zhanke shows the interconnectedness between the broader contexts of political and national upheavals and the inevitable personal transformations of each character, especially the young generation.

Narrative Structure:

Chapter One: China, 1999:

In Fenyang, childhood friends Liangzi, a coal miner, and Zhang, the owner of a gas station, are both in love with Tao, the town’s beauty. Tao eventually marries the wealthier Zhang and the couple name their son Dollar.

Chapter Two: 2014.

Tao is divorced and her son Dollar emigrates to Australia with his business magnate father.

Chapter Three: Australia, 2025.

Dollar, now 19, no longer speaks Chinese and can barely communicate with his now bankrupt father.  All that he remembers of his mother is her name.

There is an original use of the 1993 Pet Shop Boys version of “Go West,” a unifying narrative device whose rendition and meaning change from segment to segment, signaling the era’s new tone and mood.

The first time we hear it is in the context of a group of laughing youngsters in a dance train.  But that moment of happiness declines as the movie depicts repeated train rides, each carrying them to a new kind of happiness. The final dance puts the pop tune in the darkest context, with one orphan thinking of another.

Director’s Statement

It’s because I’ve experienced my share of ups and downs in life that I wanted to make  If we imagine a point ten years into our future, how will we look back on what’s happening today? And how will we understand “freedom”? Buddhist thought sees four stages in the flow of life: birth, old age, sickness, and death. I think the ultimate point of this film is to say: Whatever times we live through, none of us can avoid experiencing those stages, those difficult moments.  Mountains may depart, relationships may endure.