Mountains May Depart is Jia Zhangke’s insular tale of life and love spanning three consecutive time periods. Beginning with a focus on a love triangle between young Tao (Zhao Tao) and two potential male suitors – one a white collar coal miner, the other a wealthy investor – the film transitions to the present before coming to a close in the year 2025. As time goes by, these same individuals drift in and out of each others’ lives as organically evolving change becomes something of a centerpiece, for better and for worse.
For those familiar with A Touch of Sin, let it be known that his latest is a drastic departure in terms of subjectivity and tone. Mountains May Depart is a wholly accessible yarn steeped in basic human relationships and the ebb and flow of life itself. Shot in three different aspect ratios indicative of the time period in question, Jia’s decidedly slight illustration of each scenario exudes earnest sympathetic vibes that help transcend the banality of the various goings-on.
The nuanced advancement of the narrative from scene to scene feels a bit sluggish given the ordinary disposition of what transpires, however the sensitivity directed toward the film’s subjects is enough to procure and sustain our respective investment levels. With the first two-thirds being entirely enjoyable, viewers will undoubtedly have a hard time transitioning into a final third that features a hokey, English-speaking teenage Dollar and Sylvia Chang’s Mia: Dollar’s teacher and soon-to-be lover. Barring the quality of the central performance, investment rarely dwindles as Dollar’s existential uncertainty as a burgeoning adult rounds out the platter of life’s messiness that the film employs as its thematic through line.
It’s easy to pinpoint why Mountains May Depart‘s existence as an ostensibly run-of-the-mill character drama could earn a fair share of detractors. The success of Jia’s latest is immediately contingent upon our respective investment levels and, despite a palpable earnestness and uniqueness of presentation from segment to segment, what transpires consciously sidesteps melodrama to remain low key albeit effective. There’s little to read into, but to be honest, this slice of unfettered human interconnectivity through the times hit nearly all the right notes despite the predictably varying quality of its entirety.