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The year is 2025. A father and son are on the verge of an emotional breakdown, dancing around their feelings, struggling to say something real to one another. They can barely speak the same language. And this isn’t just a “parents just don’t understand” situation. The Chinese father and businessman, Zhang (Yi Zhang), struggles with his son’s English and with his loose Chinese dialect. The son, Dollar (Zijian Dong), is in school in Australia, and has been speaking English for so long that he’s lost his ability to perfectly, tonally speak Cantonese to his father.
Dollar wants to leave school because he’s experiencing adolescent existential angst. Perhaps wealth has spoiled them with the luxury of distance, and a lack of need to be near each other. Dollar has school, his dad has guns and liquor, and in this moment, the tension comes to a head. Dollar e-mails his father that he’s leaving school. Zhang has to block-translate, and misreads Dollar’s message. Tone, meaning, and the very flavor and candor of the message all vanish in the digital sphere.
“It’s like Google Translate is your real son,” admits Dollar, in what feels like a defeat.
Nary a scarier or more prophetic idea has been offered this year at the cinema.
And it speaks loudly to Mountains May Depart’s elusive missive about the deconstruction of not only truth in communication, but the founding tenets of identity over time. Only in the final leg of his film does Chinese filmmaker Zhangke Jia’s grand ambition become clear, yet every last detail hypnotizes as the film offers a way into an intimate, restrained, and regretful life experience. “What if we spoke our minds, and better acknowledged one another?” the film seems to ask. Mountains May Depart is a serene and epic song about life’s many barriers, and how we build them for ourselves over time.
Set from 1999 to 2025, the film depicts the life and times of a handful of people, their love triangles, their many distractions and disconnected lives, their false hopes and dreams, and failed lives. The film introduces a trio of best friends, innocent and carefree, just dancing away to Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”. Zhang is a younger man, on the rise thanks to his fortunes in coal. Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) is a complacent, lower-class miner. And then there’s Tao (Tao Zhao), the apple of both Liangzi and Zhang’s eyes. They’re happy young people, but when love comes, feelings get hurt and choices must be made.
Tao weds Zhang. Liangzi runs away. Cut to 2014. Liangzi’s mine work is catching up to his health. Zhang and Tao have split, but Zhang won custody of their child, Dollar. Every emotion is experienced, but must be surgically removed given how the chracters bottle or even ignore their truths. And come 2025, Mountains May Depart opts to focus on Dollar, and how he is the product of his withheld heritage, and of his unadventurous, protective upbringing.
Mountains May Depart is a patient, sedate film, but the emotional dividends leave a mark, and the film potently meditates on the danger of losing one’s etymology. What if Zhang and Liangzi could have reconciled their mutual feelings? What if Dollar could better comprehend his past? What happens when people forget who they are? To supplant one’s self with pride, or technology, or any number of other distractions is to avoid being true to one’s self. It’s not throw-away-your-phone-and-hug-your-Mom stuff, but something more meaningful and contemplative.
Perhaps the film’s most striking quality is its restraint. Thematically and stylistically, it’s a film of quiet medium shots, long takes, and clear but evasive words. Every choice is tiny, but humane and usually deliberate. Take the end of the first act. The 1999 portion, a solid 50 minutes of preface, is shot in basic 4:3 ratio, alluding to prior events. Then, as the film’s title appears (which has to be a record or something), the film goes widescreen. It’s practically a challenge on Jia’s part. Mountains May Depart carefully pleads with you to take notice and speak up, or gaps will become divides, and you might miss something important in the long run.