There are two lines in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart that I think help to see what the film may be about. The first is, “Nobody can be with you all through life. We are fated to part,” and the second is, “Time doesn’t change everything. That’s what life taught me.” How I see it then, is that Mountains May Depart is about what Zhangke sees as the ephemerality of relationships especially in the face of time and distance which threatens to dissolve those relationships. Mountains May Depart is told across three story arcs, first beginning in 1999, then jumping to 2014, and finally, ending in 2025. By using three story arcs which take place over a large amount of time, Zhangke is able to display the dissolution of relationships which I argue for. Yet, there’s an importance in that second line I quoted which I see as a counter-argument to my established set-up. Time and distance may erode relationships, but what time doesn’t change are keepsakes; bits of memory given physical form that allow us to retain the essence of those relationships. In Mountains May Depart those keepsakes take the form of an unopened wedding invitation, a dog, a music album and a pair of keys, all which make multiple appearances throughout the film.
As I stated earlier, the story in Mountains May Depart is told across three arcs. The first story which is also the longest, focuses on a trio of friends: Zhao Tao (Zhao Tao) Zhang Yi (Zhang Yi), and Liang Jingdong (Ling Jingdong). Yi and Jingdong both vie for Tao’s heart and underlying their romantic struggle is a financial dichotomy. Yi makes a living by running a helmet store at a small mine; he’s meagre yet humble. Jingdong on the other hand is a university graduate and has slowly accrued wealth through investment opportunities, including buying the mine which Yi works at and subsequently firing him in a jealous rage. Jingdong is shown to be much more childish due to his attitude being dictated by his wealth. He showboats his material goods and makes Tao promises of wealth.
It’s easy to dismiss Yi and Jingdong as economical stereotypes. Once again, Yi is poor yet humble and Jingdong is rich but quite the jerk. While Yi’s characterization does end there, there’s a bit more to Jingdong. As the story progresses, especially in the third arc, we get an understanding that Jingdong’s obsession with wealth is more than just a want for power, although it certainly is also that. I’m jumping a bit ahead of myself, but in the third arc, Jingdong lives with his late teenage son, Dollar—an apt name for someone who’s made a prosperous life for themselves. There’s nuance in Jingdong’s son’s name being Dollar that is also part of my argument concerning Jingdong’s personality being more than a simple trope. Jingdong and Dollar get in an argument over how Dollar should live his life, and a line from Jingdong that strikes me as important is when Jingdong questions how Dollar is going to make a life for himself without a college degree. To clarify, for Jingdong wealth is more than just the attainment of power but for opportunity. Through his affluence, Jingdong is able to leave China and make a life in Australia—a move that’s symbolic in itself. For Jingdong, the West is a symbol of prosperity and modernity and this is what Jingdong strives for not only for himself but for his son. The obsession with opportunity gets to such a point that Jingdong changes his name to “Peter” in an act that casts away his Chinese identity and allows him ease of access into Western culture. That nuance in Dollar’s name then is that by naming his son after Western currency, Jingdong is attempting to endow a sense of power over him. The Dollar is strong, and the move to the West is wanted.
Going back, by the end of the first arc, Tao and Jingdong have married and Yi has moved away. The second arc begins in 2014 and mainly focuses on the relationship between Tao and her estranged son Dollar who now lives with his father after Tao and Jingdong divorced. Between Tao and the young Dollar there is also the strain of East versus West; Tao is a bit disgusted when Dollar calls her “mommy” instead of “ma,” and at a funeral, Dollar is confused as to how to perform the Chinese customs that are expected of him. Zhangke makes the tension of the relationship between Dollar and Tao the focus of the arc and thanks to the performances of the two, Tao’s heart-wrench resulting in her son’s emotional distance is made our own. That heart-wrench is made sweet, however, when Tao and Dollar finally begin to bond over a piece of Chinese music—Sally Ye’s Take Care. The bonding is too little, too late, however, and Dollar must return to his father.
And so I get into the third arc of the film, unfortunately, the weakest. Dong Zian takes the role of the young-adult Dollar and most notably, the last section of the film is in English whereas the previous two were in Mandarin. What makes this particular arc so weak is Zian’s acting which is hesitant and fearful, a result of perhaps the use of English. Zhangke has crafted his themes well into the script, and we can see Zian attempt to bring out the struggles of his character but unfortunately it falters. In this new story, Zian is endeavoring to find his Chinese roots. He’s taking a class in Chinese after forgetting how to speak it due to only speaking in English and later, he eventually attempts to track down his mother.
I think while the acting comes across as sub-par, the third act has the saving grace of what I analyzed earlier. That analysis being the fight between Dollar and his father Jingdong who now have opposite beliefs. Dollar can only speak English and damns his Western beliefs due to how he sees as it as being alienating. Jingdong, on the other hand, no longer goes by Peter and only speaks Mandarin.
Mountains May Depart is an extremely ambitious story with what I see as having plenty of pay offs. Zhangke’s themes concerning the dissolution of relationships, and Western versus Eastern ideals are allowed to build-up throughout the three narratives in order to create a film with nuance.