Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke's films are grounded in the reality of his frigid, coal-dusted hometown, Fenyang. But that doesn't mean he's a realist. His complex latest film, Mountains May Depart, begins in Fenyang in 1999 as a stylized romantic melodrama and ends, two chapters later, in a place that's not yet actual: Australia in 2025.
These places and times are linked by the life of Tao (Zhao Tao, the director's wife and longtime featured player). She's introduced as a twentysomething in 1999, dancing to a song the filmmaker imagines as China's new national anthem: the Pet Shop Boys' version of the Village People's "Go West."
Tao ultimately doesn't head west, but the man she chooses to marry does. Gas-station owner Jingsheng (Zhang Yi) is flashier and more emotional than Tao's other suitor, Liang (Liang Jingdong), who manages equipment at the coal mine Jingsheng will later buy. Tao and Jingsheng may not be an ideal couple, but they are color-coordinated: Her red coat matches his sweater and the brand new German car he doesn't quite know how to drive.
When the more naturalistic second part begins, Tao and Jingsheng are already divorced. She got the gas station; he got the son he named Dollar. The boy lives with his father and new stepmother in Shanghai, where the 7-year-old is studying English in anticipation of attending boarding school in Melbourne. Meanwhile, Liang returns to Fenyang after a long absence. He's sick, and Tao's father is fading. The promise of an auspicious future is yielding to both China's economic slowdown and the inevitability of death.
Tao is barely on screen in the final episode, set in a subtropical tomorrowland with a sun-bleached palette. Dollar is now a resentful college student who's feuding with his disillusioned father. The kid works in a Chinese restaurant, but no longer speaks the language. In fact, he and other expat Chinese youth are taking a class in their native culture from a Hong Kong-bred older woman, Mia (Sylvia Chang). She becomes close to Dollar, and elicits buried feelings about his mother.
Tao's appearance in a poignant epilogue crystallizes the film's themes of loss, emptiness, and alienation from family and tradition. It also banishes doubts about the movie's last part, whose English dialogue is sometimes awkward.
Jia has always interwoven documentary and fantasy, the latter often in the form of traditional Chinese festivals and performing troupes. (As a young woman, Tao is a star of the Fenyang Spring Gala, which takes place when ice floes are still adrift in the local river.) Here Jia inserts impromptu footage he and longtime cinematographer Yu Lik Wai shot on video in 1999 or 2014. The earlier vignettes are in a near-square format and the later ones are more horizontal, so the episodes set in those years use the same aspect ratios. For 2025, Jia switches to widescreen worthy of the scenery Jingsheng and Dollar have left behind. (The movie's Chinese title means Mountains, Rivers, Old Friends.)
Although the film's three sections are stylistically disparate, they're linked by several motifs, including a lachrymose Cantopop ballad, a man who carries a traditional sword, and Tao's dog. In chapter one, she gets a puppy, and tells Jingsheng it should live 15 years. That's the difference between 1999 and 2014, and in the second part Tao still has the animal. Does the dog, improbably, survive to 2025? That's a question that — like the future of the American dollar, or of Chinese culture — Mountains May Depart leaves open to individual interpretation.