By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today in San Francisco, Albany and Larkspur.
An alternately rapturous and ponderous story of Chinese tradition resisting the eraser of progress, Mountains May Depart stars Zhangke muse (and wife) Tao Zhao as Tao, a small-town girl whose flirtation with a “true capitalist” and rejection of a blue-collar worker mirrors her country’s culture-redefining economic fortunes.
With her red pea coat and cheerful sense of collectivism, even when she’s the focal point of a love triangle, Tao is an easy avatar for the apple-cheeked enthusiasm of the new China, and the film practically bursts with on-the-nose symbolism. For example, the wealthy suitor’s cherry-red German sports car serves as a counterpoint to the red pea coat, signifying a new era of consumption and loss.
The filmmaking here is far more restrained than in Zhangke’s previous effort A Touch of Sin. There are only a few of the deceptively simple, swivel-against-the-motion long takes that dominated that film. However, the storytelling in Mountains May Depart is just as forceful and bold. After a first act that turns out to be a 47-minute prologue, the film leaps forward to 2014 to cover Tao’s strained relationship with her namby-pamby son Dollar. Finally, the story follows the boy into a vapid, culture-less Australian near-future.
Zhangke makes thrilling and unusual decisions within a rigidly symbolic schematic (there’s a lot more Pet Shop Boys than you probably expect), and Tao Zhao does stunning work, but the other performances are a little more scattershot, especially the actor who plays her college-age son in the final movement. That said, it’s still a compelling and insightful and humane parable of the Chinese economy and traditions, past, present and future.