MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (Shan he gu ren)
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten forShockya, d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong, Dong Zijian, Sylvia Chang, Han Sanming
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 2/8/15
Opens: February 12, 2016
Let your imagination soar, however disastrous this may lead. Consider that Donald Trump is elected President on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” What would our country look like after eight years? Here is a strong possibility. Instead of one percent of Americans controlling thirty-three percent of its wealth, you now have one twentieth of one percent of Americans controlling fifty percent of the wealth. But America is great again, in Trump’s view. There are high-speed trains, new ways of extracting oil from the land, internet connections go up to 10,000 megs per second. But there’s a price. The ultra-capitalists, greedy for ever more money, fire the railroad workers and automate the high-speed trains, petrol prices soar as oligopolistic non-competition sets the price, computers and tech help workers are situated exclusively in Bangladesh as India has become too expensive for our rich to afford. Is this a net gain for America? Some would think so. Others not.
Now consider what actually has been happening in China, formerly a genuinely Communist state with reasonable equality of income and secure jobs, health care taken care of by the government, older people retired in some comfort spending days in public baths chatting merrily. Within an astonishingly short period time, China has topped Japan as a manufacturing center, a small segment of the Chinese public becomes rich, workers are fired, there is no government subsidized health care, and Shanghai has become what some describe as the most money-grabbing, wealth-seeking city on the planet.
What happens to the people? The rich become deracinated, their children going to international schools and studying English to such an extent that they forget their own language and are unable to communicate with their parents. They move out to the most developed centers of the world such as Australia, Canada and the U.S., Westernizing their first names, and China become an alienated society under the heel of rampant Capitalism.
This is the sort of world that writer-director Jia Zhangke describes, but “Mountains May Depart” is no bare political tract. It is rather a subtle picture that concentrates on human relationships baring the full range of emotions including at least the temporary thrill of making it rich (nope, money winds up not buying happiness after all), accompanied by a dramatic increase in parent-child schisms. We watch the principal character, Tao (Zhao Tao), change from a pretty, happy-go-lucky woman who demonstrates her exuberance as the film opens with some discotheque-style dancing to the sounds of the British synch-pop duo known as the Pet Shop Boys, with a bookended conclusion focusing on Tao, a sadder and wiser person who cherishes those memories.
“Mountains May Depart,” which gets its title from the director’s view that “Mountains may depart, relationships may endure,” follows Jia Zhangke’s 2013 work “A Touch of Sin,” in which four stories involving random violence serve as a warning against a tsunami of Capitalism. The story is told in three parts embracing the years 1999, 2014 and 2025, with aspect ratio changing from the Academy ratio of 1:33 to widescreen but shrinking depth of field cinematically to convey the feeling that the society is becoming shallow. The first part, which I consider the best, features the eternal triangle, with Tao pursued by two men, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). Though Zhang should feel confident of winning Tao since he is gaining wealth through ownership of a gas station and later buys out a coal mine, he feels threatened by Liangzi, a coal miner, who is not only poor but lacks an articulateness to win the lucky woman. She marries Zhang despite her repulsion at his bragging about his wealth (Trump again!), has a son whom the father names Dollar (Don Zijian who appears at age nineteen), divorces, and allows the dad to take custody given her belief that the boy can have a better life with him.
This is not to be. In the final scene, which takes place in Australia, the teenager, having been schooled as a preppie, wholly forgets his native language in favor of English, and will inevitably break with his father while at the same time unable to communicate with his now despairing and lonely mother.
“Mountains May Depart” lacks the outright physical violence of Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” but does a better job of conveying the dangers of rampant Capitalism, which seeks to destroy the traditional culture of the country and lead to misery among an alienated people. Yes, the love of money is the root of all evil in the writer-director’s view, and “Mountains May Depart” proves an accessible and emotionally draining commentary on current Chinese politics.
Unrated. 131 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+