Dir: Jia Zhangke
Runtime: 131 minutes
There’s about 40 minutes worth of a good movie in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. Sadly, it’s trapped between 80 minutes of unsuccessful material that ranges from amateurish to downright dreadful. By the time the film’s two hours draw to a close (with an admittedly lovely closing shot), the only thing that emerges as worthwhile is the performance from lead actress Tao Zhao.
That said, you wouldn’t know based on the film’s opening scenes. Jia’s film is split into three distinct sections (1999/2000, then 2014, and finally 2025) and his opener isn’t terribly convincing. Tao, the eventual main character (Tao), starts off as an oblivious Pollyanna who quickly slides from endearing to grating. You almost want to smack her, but then her first suitor, the aggressively capitalist Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang) starts boorishly interrupting like “The Great Gatsby”‘s Tom Buchanan. On the opposite end of the tolerability spectrum is coal mine worker Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang), the first act’s only convincing character.
With the tripartite structure looming over the whole enterprise, Act 1 is tasked with breezing through a love triangle that never convinces. The cup of dramatic irony runneth over, and everything is so clear as day to the viewer that what transpires on screen is tedious. Worse, Jia is unable to get his actors to push beyond their initial traits. Liangzi quickly gets pushed aside for the sake of set up, leaving us with a wide-eyed naif and her jerk-wad beau for company. When the first section ends, a title card appears, and you’d be forgiven for using this fake-out as an excuse to bolt from the theater.
But if you decide to stay, at least you’ll get to take in the lovely middle section, which does a near-miraculous 180 in terms of quality. Though it opens on Liangzi and his medical woes, the focus finds its way back to Tao, and Tao Zhao suddenly makes leaps in quality. In part two, Jia gifts the viewer with a protagonist full of genuine emotional conflict, mostly stemming from her marital woes. As age creeps up on Tao, as well as those around her, a sense of emotional urgency finally appears, and the central performance soars. Finally, after almost an hour of waiting, Tao’s hype from Cannes seems justified. There are individual scenes – like one between a mother and son on a train – that speak volumes in their carefully chosen words. If Act 1 was Jia operating on autopilot, Act 2 showcases the director throwing himself into his material.
After such a transcendent mid-section, Mountains seems prepared to move on to better things in its conclusion. Yet this is where the film gets horribly yanked back down to earth. The story switches locations (Melbourne) and languages (English), and neither of this shifts do any good. The leap into the near future returns to the amateurish clutter of the opening, only with even worse writing. The emotional struggles that arise in the final act range from groan-inducing (a standard “I’m not following your dream, dad!” arc) to borderline creepy.
The introduction of so much new territory wouldn’t be such a hurdle were it not for the drastic drop off in the quality of the acting. Moments that should hit hard generate uncomfortable laughter, and this isn’t helped by the writing (Actual dialogue: “It’s like Google Translate is your real son!”). The poignancy of the final scene, a callback to a recurring musical motif, is but a bandaid on a gaping wound that demands more intensive treatment.
**Initially published in Nov. 2015 as part of coverage of AFI Fest.