We begin with Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “The cinema’s consummate chronicler of a China evolving so rapidly that its own citizens can scarcely keep apace, Jia Zhangke strikes a particularly melancholic chord in Mountains May Depart, a polymorphous snapshot of 21st-century capitalism and its discontents that also finds the filmmaker, like several of his characters, venturing for the first time outside of his home turf and mother tongue. Following a single family as it is tossed about by time, tide and the onward march of progress over the span of a quarter-century, Jia’s latest feature addresses a host of pet themes through a less quirky, stylized lens than 2013’s gruesomely violent A Touch of Sin or 2006’s Still Life (with its condemned buildings blasting off like rocket ships). But if Mountains feels a touch schematic at times, and awkward in its third-act English-language scenes, the cumulative impact is still enormously touching, highlighted by Jia’s rapturous image-making and a luminous central performance by the director’s regular muse (and wife), Zhao Tao.”
“It starts by resembling a classic studio picture from Hollywood, the sort of thing George Stevens or Douglas Sirk might have made, or perhaps something like Mu Fei’s Chinese classic Spring in a Small Town,” suggests the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “Then it morphs into a futurist essay on China’s global diaspora and its dark destiny of emotional and cultural alienation. In this movie, the boundaries are getting pushed, visibly, between the opening and closing credits. The pure work-in-progress energy of all this is exhilarating, and if the resulting movie is flawed in its final act, then this is a flaw born of Jia’s heroic refusal to be content making the same sort of movie, and his insistence on trying to do something new with cinema and with storytelling.”
There are three chapters and, as Adam Cook notes in his dispatch to Movie Mezzanine, each “is presented in a different aspect ratio, 1999 is in 1.37:1, 2014 is in 1.85:1, and 2025 is in 2.35:1.” Zhao Tao plays Tao, “a happy-go-lucky young woman, loved by both the modest coal miner Liang [Liang Jin Dong] and their bombastic pal, Jinsheng [Zhang Yi]. Conflicting desires necessarily drive them apart, leaving Liang alone and heartbroken, while the other two get married, and have a child together named Dollar. When we jump to 2014 it seems that the harshness of existence has played a role in shaping the lives of all three—especially Liang, who has become sick, and who is reunited with his lost love in one of the film’s most moving passages. In the futuristic third part, Dollar [Dong Zijian] becomes the protagonist, and has to cope with a detachment from society that seems inherited from the choices of his parents.”
In the Notebook, Marie-Pierre Duhamel points out that Mountains also “works upon the shift in languages (spoken and filmic) through its three parts: from Shanxi dialect… [in] the first part…, to the conflict between mother-dialect and son-multilingual expression (a mix of Mandarin, Shanghai dialect and English) in the… second part, and eventually to the tormented relationship of Chinese and English in the cinemascope wide screen of the third and final part…. Language as a conscience of history, personal and collective. Back to the future. This time, Jia Zhangke has spoken for himself, for his people, and for all of us, more clearly than ever before.”
“There’s bravado to admire about this loose triptych,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “There are, too, some very affecting moments. But this strange film with strange textures—even at the level of the shot—falls apart during the comparatively feeble final act. The dialogue sounds strained, the Freudian subtext is trumpeted too fiercely, and socio-economic and cultural shifts are repeatedly noted in casual conversation and incidental music: ‘Go West,’ anyone?”
“There is no chemistry among the cast, even in the early part,” finds Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com, “and the casting of lightweight actors dooms the narrative to superficiality. There are moments when Jia works to his strengths, which makes it all the more frustrating that he has attempted a form of storytelling so out of the range of his best talents.”
Scott Roxborough interviews Jia for the Hollywood Reporter, where David Rooney notes that, in the third chapter, cinematographer Yu Lik-wai “reaps benefits from the expansive Australian landscapes.” And Screen finds that “the film is effectively scored by Yoshihiro Hanno.”
Updates: “I don’t think of Jia as a filmmaker who constantly surprises, yet looking back on his last features, I realize he keeps doing just that: I Wish I Knew, A Touch of Sin—all come from a new, acute angle than the previous film,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook:
Here, thankfully, is an art house master whose inspiration cannot be quelled, who refuses to fall into habit…. Dare I ask what does it all mean? I’m honestly not sure, but I can say that no film in the competition so thoroughly kept me ungrounded, unsure of what was to come next, and this despite the fact the story and emotional beats are so tightly structured, direct and perhaps even “conventional.” This unmooring—it is this sense that for me indicates something else is at work here, a deeper structure, a more elaborate consideration. When the film features such broad political swipes like naming a child of the nouveau riche “Dollar,” it initially feels like this is the level at which we’re being addressed—and yet I have the sneaking suspicion something else is going on.
“I’ve run hot and cold on Jia in the past—my favorite remains his funky, little-seen debut, 1997’s Xiao Wu—and I likewise run hot and cold on this ambitious epic,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “As always, Jia’s ideas about the deleterious effects of Chinese capitalism are on point, but the dramatic context he’s fashioned for those ideas this time around functions solely as blatant, ungainly subtext. The text itself is corrupt.”
“As it turns out, Jia Zhangke can’t direct English dialogue for shit, and how much a viewer is able to put up with atrocious acting will probably factor into how much they take away from the last section,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “In basic terms, this is Jia’s vision of China’s past, present, and future—of wealth growing and going abroad, still drawn back by the memory of home, as though it were an Oedipal urge. Jia plots with the graceful simplicity of a late silent film, focused on objects and gestures.”
For Ryland Aldrich at Twitch, Mountains is “a creative exploration of Jia’s themes that is at times poignant, and at times completely pointless.”
Listening (50’31”). The latest episode of The Close-Up from the Film Society of Lincoln Center features Scott Foundas’s conversation with Jia during last fall’s New York Film Festival.
Updates, 5/21: “There is something freeing about Jia’s refusal to be tidy in his exploration of these three characters over time,” finds Tim Grierson, writing for Paste. “Other filmmakers would go for easy dramatic ironies—say, Dollar falling for Liangzi’s adult daughter, the two never knowing the unrequited love of a generation ago—but Jia is almost clinically pragmatic when approaching his protagonists. Consequently, Mountains May Depart stays beguilingly unpredictable, Jia’s unromantic worldview perhaps representative of a society in which our individual lives are powerless against the endless march of technology, materialism and, of course, time. However, Mountains May Depart also reflects the downside to such a symbolic storytelling approach. Because Jia has a macro view of his characters, Tao, Liangzi and Zhang can be a bit schematic—they’re stand-ins for big ideas, not always wonderfully developed people in their own rights.”
For David Acacia at the International Cinephile Society, “this is the most spirited Jia Zhangke has likely ever been…. Full of praise for Mommy (directed by current Jury member Xavier Dolan) when he was part of 2014’s Cannes Jury, saying of its actors that ‘You can feel the passion and freedom inside of their bodies,’ Jia Zhangke appears to channel this inspiration into his new film.”
“The film, to me, feels like another breakthrough by a director who has never stopped pushing either himself or his idea of what a Chinese movie can do and be,” writes Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “This one begins as a stupid romantic comedy but ends with an emotional depth that rivals the Mariana Trench.”
Mountains “is never less than bold and ambitious,” agrees Geoff Andrew, writing for Time Out. “If the last of its three parts falters here and there, it is at the very least an intelligent and intriguing meditation on issues concerning what it means to be Chinese in today’s and tomorrow’s world.”
Updates, 5/22: “This knowingly melodramatic look at the past, present, and possible future of China is uneven, moving, and ultimately hard to pin down, its seeming simplicity soon blooming into an enigmatic complexity which harnesses the emotional to address the global,” writes James Lattimer at the House Next Door.
“If A Touch of Sin expressed Jia’s rage at the contemporary impact of capitalist progress on Chinese society, Mountains May Depart is his lament over the direction in which it is headed,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage, adding that “the Australian segment only takes up 20 minutes or so of the film’s running time and is unable to ruin the whole.”
“Many Cannes critics—not this one—disliked the last section,” writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. “For me, the whole movie is tremendously done. It never sacrifices astringent commentary to melodrama or sentiment. And it concludes with a small, brilliant, overpoweringly poignant scene that may be, just about, the best ending in modern cinema.”
Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson agrees that “by the achingly poignant final scene—both bitterly sad and reveling in a hard-won optimism—Jia has found his way again, even if his characters haven’t. In the end it’s unclear what awaits this family, or China, but Jia has crafted a wise, stirring rumination on what was, and what could be.”
Updates, 5/24: For the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “Zhao is the film’s racing heart, and gives a performance of extraordinary detail and depth of feeling in all three time periods: she’s ravishing and butterfly-bright as a young woman, and tight with anxieties as a worried mother a decade and a half later, and returns for the bittersweet and beautiful finale after spending a regrettably large part of the film’s third section offscreen.”
And for the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, “it’s in the last section of Mountains May Depart, set in 2025, that the real magic happens.” And “particularly in this last section, throws off a melancholy glow, as if Jia has seen his own country take off like a capitalist rocket ship and is searching the sky for streaks of the one he remembers. Maybe that earlier unexplained plane crash is a premonition of sorts. (The movie also includes references to the mysteriously disappeared Malaysian airliner.) What goes up must eventually come down.”
Update, 5/28: For Glenn Heath Jr., writing for the L, “after A Touch of Sin this can’t help but feel like a slightly less impacting experience. Yet Mountains May Depart steadily and interestingly continues the filmmaker’s interest in identity, Chinese-ness, and the self-destructive properties of capitalism.”
Update, 6/13: “There’s a nagging humanism at work in each episode, mitigating the love triangle machinations of the first act, accentuating the mournful air of the second, and softening the earnest romanticism of the third.” Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot: “Never before have Jia’s themes of globalization and economic paralysis been rendered on such a simultaneously vast yet intimate scale, his vibrant digital images encompassing an entire era of industrialization and an equally vast emotional spectrum.”
Dennis Lim for Artforum: “Jia has often focused on those cast aside by convulsive change; this film, which expands the horizons of both time and space, and follows characters who have been swept up in the modernizing tide, is perhaps his most emotionally direct yet, held together by an enormously moving performance by his wife and regular star, Zhao Tao.”
Update, 6/26: Amir Ganjavie interviews Zhao Tao for Film International.
Update, 6/29: Amir Ganjavie also took part in a roundtable discussion with Jia; the transcript’s up at the Notebook.