by Jason Suzuki
Recently it seems more and more films are utilizing various aspect ratios instead of sticking to just one for a film's entirety. Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart is yet another one to do so but Jia lets this technique function on different levels without being too showy about it. The film is broken into three sections, each set in a different time, each with a different aspect ratio, and in the case of the last section, a different protagonist. We start in 1999 in the middle of a love triangle between Tao (Jia's wife/longtime muse Zhao Tao), Liangzi (Lian Jin Dong), and Zhang (Zhang Yi). The opening of the film sees the characters rehearsing a choreographed dance routine to "Go West" by the Pet Shop Boys. This is a moment that encapsulates the opening section of the film and its characters. Tao is between two men who are both clearly in love with her, Liangzi a mine worker and Zhang a businessman who recently has come into some money which he flaunts by bragging about his business and showing off his new car. Zhang pursues Tao like he pursues business, Liangzi waits it out like he does at the mine.
This opening section in 1999 is filmed in the full frame Academy ratio and with each jump forward, one to 2014 and then finally to 2025, the frame gets wider and wider. In one sense aspect ratio is used to the same effect as The Grand Budapest Hotel to denote time, but Jia allows it to connote something greater than that. With China's economic boom a world that feels small and cramped, yet intimate, becomes larger and larger, eventually feeling sparse and inherent to isolation despite the globalization. This is aspect ratio as a reflection of human relationship, with each other and their environment. It speaks to the narrative ambition and the emotional ambition of the film. Despite Zhang's shallowness Tao essentially chooses financial stability over anything else, but as we jump forward to 2014 we see that Tao would still have had to face hardships of a different kind had she remained with Liangzi, who has remained at the mine and developed the serious illnesses that come with that line of work for so long.
The film's future section will probably end up being the most divisive as the boldest choices are made in the narrative department as well as the predictions the film makes about what sort of world we'll live in a decade from now may rub some the wrong way or be just deemed as implausible. One touch of magic realism hangs on a thread so thin it has the potential to lose the audience completely, despite being the instance of hope to contrast with the film's bleak outlook. Dollar is now grown up, going to school in Australia, living with his father who he is estranged from; Dollar has forgotten his Chinese and must communicate with his father through typed messages butchered by Google Translate. His father Zhang taking advantage of the change in gun ownership laws of Australia to start collecting them. Just as he made you pay attention to him in the earlier section of the film, Zhang Yi does the same here portraying the change and the devolution over the years Zhang has sustained. Along with Dearest Zhang Yi delivers a lot in a supporting role.
Dollar studies Chinese at his college where he forms a relationship with his professor (Sylvia Chang), who most certainly he is drawn to as a replacement for his mother, who he hasn't seen since the middle section of the film set in 2014. This is the section where the title of the film really starts to take shape: Mountains may depart, relationships may endure says Jia in his director's statement referencing Buddhist thought. We see what sort of life has been forged from Tao's choice to wed Zhang. We also get to see what could have been had she chosen Liangxi. The only thing missing is what could have been had she not had to choose.
Mountains May Depart is beautiful and bleak, hopeful and heartbreaking. Despite consistently returning to episodic narratives, Jia keeps expanding his ideas and since debuting in the 90s, continues to earn his status as one of the most exciting filmmakers from China. Mountains May Depart certainly has social significance but it is at its heart a human story about relationships and time. A rare film in that it's both emotionally and intellectually engaging.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.