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First Look Review - MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

25 years in the life of three characters.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Zhangke Jia

Starring: Tao Zhao, Yi Zhang, Jing Dong Liang

mountains may depart poster


It's not so long ago the West was afforded little insight into life in China. Though the movies that made their way out of that vast nation were mostly colourful, celebratory epics, we assumed this was nothing more than propaganda and that China was little more than a glorified North Korea. In recent years we've come to learn that China is in fact more Western than the West itself, all too eager to embrace the worst traits of capitalism. Following on from A Touch of Sin, director Zhangke Jia continues to criticise the narcissistic beast his country has evolved into with his latest epic, the decades spanning Mountains May Depart.



Opening in 1999, we're introduced to a trio of twenty-something friends; Tao (Zhao Tao, wife of the director), a bubbly young woman and doting daughter who works in the family store; Liang (Liang Jingdong), a broke but content coal miner; and the rich and ruthless Jingsheng (Zhang Yi). All three embrace life and seem set for a wonderful new century until Jingsheng makes an enemy of Liang by purchasing his coal mine and warning him to stay away from Tao. Liang reluctantly leaves the village, leaving Tao and Jigsheng to wed. We then move forward to 2014, where the couple have now separated, their son 'Dollar' living with his father in the big city while Tao remains in her home town, and finally to 2025, where Dollar and his father have relocated to Australia, Jingsheng having been forced to flee China on corruption charges.



As with Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, Zhangke employs three distinct aspect ratios for the various eras. 1999 is shot in 4:3 'Academy' ratio (think classic movies and 20th century TV); 2014 in 16:9 (modern TV); and 2025 in 2.35:1 (classic widescreen). Whereas Xavier Dolan used a square 1:1 ratio for Mommy, opening out to 2.35:1 for fantasy sequences to signify hope, the wider the screen becomes here, the worse the situation the protagonists find themselves in becomes as they grow increasingly alienated from each other and the world at large. At times, Zhangke is much more blunt in getting his message across, none more so than an allegorical insert of a coal truck so over-loaded it becomes stuck in the mud (see what he did there?).



The first two acts are riveting, thanks mainly to the stellar performances from Tao and Jingdong, but the movie capsizes under the weight of their absence from the final act. Taking centre stage is Zijan Dong as Dollar, and the young actor's performance is amateurish by comparison, not helped by his speaking English for most of his screen time. He embarks on a May-December romance with his English teacher Mia (Sylvia Chang) and this subplot fails to draw us in the way the earlier plot strands did. The end result is a movie that compels for 70% of its running time, but ultimately frustrates and feels like a missed opportunity, and I can't help surmise Zhangke may need to find a writing partner if he is to truly live up to his potential.

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is in UK cinemas 15th December




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