Mountains May Depart: Patching the sentimental veil


Jia Zhangke’s best work focuses a cold eye on the violent displacements demanded by capital but allows for dramatic ambiguity. Mountains May Depart is somehow just both didactic and vague. A young woman named Tao chooses a jerky nouveau capitalist over a stolid mine worker; they name their son Dollar, then divorce; and the husband emigrates to Australia with the boy, who grows up incapable of understanding Chinese. The film is trisected into vignettes taking place in 1999, 2014, and 2025, and the aspect ratio enlarges with each leap forward. The characteristically broad span of time allows to Jia to focus, as usual, on how individuals caught up within historical forces beyond their comprehension strive to maintain their footing. This structure might have allowed him to re-imagine the present as the past, and Dollar could have served as an avenue for hypothesizing the psychological makeup of a member of the cosmopolitan young elite class of our future. But Jia fumbles on both counts, and as Tao responds to her personal losses by retreating into the preservation of traditional customs, he seems to endorse a sentimentality that’s under-examined and at odds with the implications of the story. Surely Jia must recognize some irony in the closing image of Tao, alone but financially secure, dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ wistful version of “Go West,” nostalgic for a moment when youth and capital combined to offer her a delirious promise of freedom. And how are we supposed to title, which comes from a Chinese proverb: “Mountains may depart but the roots remain unchanged”? Marx knew better than that, and I suspect so does Jia.

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