With Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhang-ke turns his powers of social observation inward, shifting subjects from the physical migrations in contemporary China to the inner emotional complexities arising from the decades following the nation’s great Cultural Reform. With rare intimacy, the filmmaker’s first foray into melodrama reveals the yearnings, melancholy, and indignations of China’s new secret heart.

Comprised of three vignettes set in 1999, 2015, and 2025, Mountains May Depart tracks the lives of childhood friends from Jia’s native Shaanxi—singer-dancer Shen Tao (in one of Zhao Tao’s most tremendous performances), brash young capitalist Zhang (Zhang Yi), and poor mineworker Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong). Each grapples with unfamiliar feelings of loneliness and isolation brought on by the pressure to survive in the nation’s ever forward-thrusting milieu of industrial, technological, and economic progress. In her pursuit of a better life, Tao has to choose between her two loves. But her decision to marry Zhang ruptures the trio’s friendship, and eventually leads to a divorce that forces her to part with her only son Dollar (Dong Zijian) when he moves, first to Shanghai and then to Melbourne with his father.

Since 2006, Jia has dedicated himself to documenting China’s vastly changing landscapes and disappearing cultures, only recently returning to fictional filmmaking with 2013’s A Touch of Sin. Whereas Sin was inspired by events he learned about in the news, Mountains May Depart draws largely from his personal relationships and experiences. Working with his longtime cinematographer Yu Lik Wai, Jia crafts each sequence with a different texture and aspect ratio specific to the period. The most striking sequence is the first, composed in a 1.33 aspect ratio to match the square video frame of Nineties—the picture is luminous and brilliantly saturated without pollution; the sky is high and cobalt, and the joie de vivre of young love is carried along by the propulsive rhythm of The Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” in a disco. Resurrecting images from his memories, Jia also incorporates documentary footage he shot with Yu in the same year. With each sequence, the frame widens—1.85 for present-day, and anamorphic widescreen for the near-future—in contrasting proportion to the growing emotional austerity and somberness between characters.

The film’s title comes from a Chinese aphorism, that “time will transform mountains and rivers, but our hearts will remain the same.” But how true does this hold in the new century? The story of Mountains May Depart ends where it begins, with Tao dancing to The Pet Shop Boys—now an old lady who has borne witness to half a century of national transformation and suffered the personal losses that have accompanied it. Laid bare by the film’s structural symmetry is the certainty that, indeed, you can’t go home again. FILM COMMENT spoke with the filmmaker last fall during the New York Film Festival, where Mountains May Depart had its U.S. premiere. The movie opens February 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Mountains May Depart

You’ve said that a set of keys to your mom’s house became the catalyst for this film. Can you talk more about that?

In 2006, I started thinking more about the notion of family. This is because my own family changed: that year, my father passed away. It impacted me a great deal. Oddly, it was the absence of my father that made me examine my family so closely for the first time. What was my mother going to do? I thought of aging, illness, and death more than ever before. You can say that Mountains May Depart is the sum total of my collated emotional experience from that point forward.

My mother was living alone in Shaanxi at that point. In archetypal Chinese families, everyone lives together. But I had made a point of not following this tradition. I wasn’t alone—everyone seemed to be more peripatetic than ever. In my case, I went from growing up in a small mining town to going to school in Beijing. Then I started working in the film industry, which took me to even more far-flung places. I had less and less time to go home. I would visit my mother on Chinese New Year, or August 15 [Mid-Autumn festival], and each time, I would bring her money. But she became increasingly melancholy and withdrawn. Then, one day, she gave me a pair of keys—like Tao to her son in the film—and told me I should have a set of keys to my own home so I could come back whenever I wanted. Then, saddened by the realization that I had gone so long without a pair of keys to my childhood home, I suddenly understood that what my mom needed from me wasn’t money—that was not going to ameliorate her loneliness—she needed someone to talk to her and be there for her.

In the last 20 years, the changes in Chinese society have instilled a new value system. People believe that financial currency goes further than emotional connection, so all of their energy and time is put into the accumulation of economic wealth, and they forget about what’s really important. I think I am a person who’s prone to self-reflection and over-analyzing, but even I have fallen under the spell of money. I thought it could buy my mother nicer things and give her a better life, and I could therefore be less worried about her. This startling realization moved me to make a film about emotions.

How does this relate to your previous films?

For the first time, I wanted the core of my film to be about the characters’ feelings and relationships. In my older films, with their young drifter protagonists, the stories were about the process of finding personal freedom in a time of cultural disappearance. In Platform [00], the young performers meander about, searching for music, and in this process they are confronted with an ungraspably vast and rapidly changing Chinese society. They leave their home, and go onto various sites, and in the end, return home. Back then, what I wanted to show were existential issues that arose from the past 20-something years of economic and cultural reform. 24 City [08] examined the various ways Chinese workers struggled to survive. Still Life [06] looked at the surreal disappearance of entire villages from the construction of this larger-than-life Three Gorges Dam, which forced people to migrate far away from their no longer existing homes. In my portrayal of family relations in Platform, what I wanted to show was the intellectual and cultural disparity that existed between generations.

It wasn’t until after I finished A Touch of Sin [13] that I decided to explore deeper emotional issues arising from China’s social changes. We take for granted that, in all of us, there is a private inner life—something sacred and personal that cannot be touched by any outside force. But have the rapid social, economic, and technological changes in our world begun to insidiously invade that aspect of our lives? That’s what I wanted to explore with this film. 

A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin

Do you feel it is your most personal film to date?

It might be the film into which I put the most of my own life experiences. But I think it also holds the most universal themes of any film I have made. The English and Chinese titles of the film have a similar meaning: according to an old Chinese aphorism, time can move mountains and rivers, but our emotions and the way we deal with the inevitable rites of passage—love, family, aging, death—remain unchanged. Perhaps our emotional existence is the most fundamental.

The 1993 Pet Shop Boys version of “Go West” bookends the film. Can you talk about what the song signifies to you?

After the international premiere of Mountains May Depart at Cannes, I was shocked to learn how this song has persisted in collective cultural memory the world over. The story of the film begins in 1999 when “Go West” was one of the most popular songs. At this point, China had been undergoing a cultural reform for over a decade. In contrast, Platform is set in 1979 when China was first beginning its reform, and there was virtually no pop culture to speak of. On top of that, the Cold War was going on. Back then, any American export—like a bottle of Coca Cola or a song—would have been acutely foreign, bearing all the intensified cultural significance that anything else foreign had.

By the late Nineties, however, China had developed a very robust independent music scene, and popular Western culture had seeped into our everyday lives. We listened to Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, even ABBA. So “Go West” in the movie is not a metaphor—it’s a password to the memories of my youth.

In that decade, discos suddenly sprang up all over Beijing, and I was in college at the time, so naturally I went dancing a lot. The DJ would always wait until midnight to put on “Go West.” It was a very unique ritual in the club: when the song came on, no matter who you were standing next to, you would put your hands on his/her shoulder and everyone would form a train. The song possesses a certain expansive quality only available to youth, of levity and freedom—evoked from the opening when you can hear seagulls in the background and pulsing through its rhythm. When you’re young and free, it doesn’t matter if you’re going “west” or elsewhere. The important thing is the impulsiveness with which you “go.”

Mountains May Depart

Mountains May Depart

How has your use of music evolved since 2000?

Music has always been very important in my films, because it relates very closely to my personal experience of growing up. I was born in 1970. I grew up in the Eighties when there were only revolutionary anthems. In those anthems, there was no “I”—only “we,” which is to say there were no individual emotions in the songs. The songs had titles like “Together We Have Power” or “We Are Soldiers.” Despite the years of cultural reform in the subsequent decades, we lacked any established language to represent our innermost feelings—the Cultural Revolution had wiped that away and left a void where there used to be self-expression.

Suddenly in the Nineties, you started to hear songs like “The Moon Represents My Heart” by Teresa Teng. This shift left a huge imprint on the creative imagination of my generation, because the “I” seemed to rise into our lives suddenly and unexpectedly through those songs. For the first time, they articulated the inner experiences of growing up and falling in love for a generation of people who were never encouraged or taught how to represent their own feelings. Fittingly I can recall a very popular song from the late Eighties called “Follow Your Feelings.” Imagine a song telling you to do that instead of following the Party! The pop music of that decade felt like a new kind of revolution. The subject of the songs were more complex and expressive—mostly sad songs about parting and heartache—and we projected ourselves and our own feelings onto them as well. New pop songs are much more diluted in comparison. This music of my youth is now a souvenir of the way people used to express their emotions. I wanted to preserve that in this film.

You have consistently collaborated with cinematographer Yu Lik Wai over the years. How was this project was different?

We started collaborating in 1998, when I made Xiao Wu [Pickpocket, 97]. He is a Hong Kong native who received his film education in Europe, and I am a Mainland native with a film education in Beijing. Aside from our interest in contemporary art and music, we shared the desire to uncover new ways of understanding our surroundings through film. Our aesthetic perspective differed from the conventions of Chinese and international cinema of that time. In China, you often hear people saying things like “That image is so beautiful, it looks just like an oil painting” or “a National Geographic cover.” This kind of empty beauty never interested us. We have always been in search of something that’s unique and a little foreign. We wanted to draw cinema closer to the experiences of daily life. These shared views became the foundation on which we built our own aesthetic system. It is a system that doesn’t belong to any established tradition.

The first two projects we worked on were on celluloid. After Platform, digital filmmaking started becoming accessible in China. Although it was a primitive and crude technology back then, we could feel the revolutionary possibilities it held for independent filmmakers. In the past, all aspects of film production were vertically controlled by the country’s 16 national studios. No one else was allowed to make films. It was precious—a profession that was out of reach for most people. If you were an official filmmaker, it was nearly impossible for a singular artistic voice to emerge through this studio system. Digital filmmaking, with its rawness and immediacy became a way to overcome this hierarchy. By extension, it signified a new possibility for China to represent itself through cinema—it can be shot in tight spaces, in large crowds of people, and in inclement environments. My collaboration with Yu Lik Wai spans the period that digital filmmaking medium matured and became the dominant format of filmmaking in China.

Yu Lik Wai’s most salient and unique method comes from the way he manipulates digital cameras—the lenses, the resolution, and so on—to create entirely new expressionistic textures in the image. He is always so ahead of the consumer curve that by the time a new camera becomes available, he already understands it inside and out. I recall when we were filming Unknown Pleasures [02], we had a camera that shot in such high resolution, the picture looked too clear and artificial. So he modified its resolution, and this created a unique grain in the image. When we work together, we start by thinking about the texture of the image and work our way up to the composition and frame. Digital formats are so closely connected to our consumer culture, and each generation of new technology changes the way we see the world. So each project we collaborate on is about finding new ways to match our picture to the environment being portrayed.

Mountains May Depart was a special project for us, because the story’s three-part elliptical timeline—starting in 1999 and ending 10 years into the future—largely overlaps with our history of working together. It made us think deeply about the way our work has changed over these years, and apply all our accumulated artistic and technical experience to portray images of our past and beyond. I got my first DV camera in 1999, so the first part of the film is in 1.33 aspect ratio, the same as my earliest documentary video footage. The colors in this sequence are most vivid and saturated, because I wanted to portray my memories of the unpolluted air, sunshine, and blue skies of my youth. This was the hardest part to shoot, because we had to wait for clear skies, which meant we could only shoot for about two days each week. The present-day sequence is 1.85, and colors are muddied by the smog and construction, and the future sequence in widescreen—industrial and synthetic. The widening aspect ratio is a visual counterpoint to the increasingly austere and melancholic relationships between the characters.

Mountains May Depart

Mountains May Depart

You initially looked at your old documentary footage as research material for the first sequence, but you decided to incorporate that footage into the film in the end. Can you explain what lead to this choice?

As I mentioned, in 1999 I got my first DV camera. After that, Yu Lik Wai and I formed a habit of going out to shoot documentary footage without any end goal or direction, and we have kept that going until today. Now when we have an assignment to shoot a commercial, for example, if we have a day or two after the shoot, we’ll go off and shoot documentary footage. I set the first sequence of Mountains May Depart in 1999 because that’s the first year I could look back on my old footage and see what people were wearing, driving, and how they were speaking.

The first tape I took out from this archive contained footage I shot at a disco! I had filmed a middle-aged man dancing vigorously in the club. He could not be a worse dancer, but his enthusiasm was unmatched, and right then, I knew the sincerity of that documentary moment could never be re-created. The only way I could capture its energy was by incorporating it into the body of my film. So I kept the aspect ratio 1.33 for the first sequence to match the original footage. However, this had the most unexpected result. Through the editing process, the old video footage became abstracted, and almost non-representational. Seeing it, you could feel that it is a moment of the past, but it had a very haunting impressionistic quality—not at all the historical authenticity I had originally planned for, but it still worked well.

Can you talk about working with the wonderful composer Yoshihiro Hanno?

I first heard Hanno’s work in 2000, when I was finishing Platform. At that time he had just completed his score for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. I loved his work. So through my Japanese producer, Mr. Shozo Ichiyama, I got in touch with Hanno. He did a lot of work for me, but in the end, I decided against having any non-diegetic soundtrack music, so sadly it was all for naught. What he did was wonderful, but I had to go in another direction for my film. The next time we collaborated was during 24 City. At that point, I had already worked with another Hou Hsiao-hsien regular, Lim Giong, who is a brilliant electronic composer. Over the years, Hanno shifted from composing electronically to working more with classical instruments. Since 24 City was my way of tracking Chinese history as it moved into postmodernity, I felt the score should move from a classical composition into something electronic. So I asked Hanno to collaborate with Lim Giong.

For Mountains May Depart, I thought a more analog and tactile score with real instrumentation would evoke the kind of emotional atmosphere I wanted. After visiting the set, Hanno went back to his studio and composed the score using a guitar, strings, and piano. He added some electronic elements for the final sequence. When he sent me the composition, I listened to it alone in my office, and I was very moved by what he had created.

Mountains May Depart

Mountains May Depart

Can you talk about how your working relationship with Zhao Tao has changed on this film?

People often say we’ve been consistently collaborating since Platform. In fact, we had gone on a bit of a hiatus between Still Life in 2006 and A Touch of Sin in 2013, because I began to make films that were more like documentary than fiction. It’s not that she didn’t appear in my films, but she had very little dialogue in 24 City, and was only on set for two days. She played a ghost in I Wish I Knew [10], and she had no lines. During this period, she worked with two European directors: Isaac Julien in Ten Thousand Waves [10], and Andrea Segre in Shun Li and the Poet [11]. When we were on the set of A Touch of Sin together, I realized she had developed a very unique method of working during this time.

My scripts can be roughly hewn—I describe the characters’ actions but I don’t make their internal motivations explicit. Zhao Tao asks me a lot of questions about their background and carefully develops every detail of her character. She becomes a second author, writing her own screenplay of my screenplay. She also likes to ask me what time of day a certain scene occurs, down to the specific hour, because our bodies feel different at various points of the day. Adjusting the condition of her body to that time of day results in a more internalized performance. Her attention to these details also makes me think about each scene differently. Of course, these are all aspects of her technique—beyond that, she possesses an intense empathy and love for her character, and through that love, she is able to enter into and animate Tao’s world seamlessly.

Can you talk about the character of Dollar?

Dollar represents a Chinese person whose life has been largely predetermined by his predecessors. To a certain extent, it’s the same for all of us. When he’s little, his parents get divorced and his mother gives up custody of him in hopes that his father will give him a better life in Shanghai. When his father has to emigrate to Australia, he has no choice but to go along. The key points of his existence have all been determined by external forces. Will he ever obtain personal freedom? As a writer I have a lot of love for this character, because we all find ourselves at this juncture between our predetermined past and an unknown future—it is point that opens up a possibility for freedom and revolution.

Mountains May Depart

Mountains May Depart

In the last sequence, we don’t see Tao until the very end. Why this protracted absence?

All the characters in this film come and go like specters. Liangzi, a poor mine worker, gets very sick and disappears after the second sequence. I don’t show what happens to him after that, because I didn’t need to. Zhang disappears from 1999 until 2025. We only hear people discussing him and his newfound wealth in 2015. Tao, too, disappears from the film for a while. It’s not hard to picture what happens to a poor mine worker in rural China after getting sick, or what happens to a mother after losing her only son. More importantly, I want the audience to fill in these ellipses with their own experience and imagination. The emotional intensity of each dramatic denouement might be diminished with too much exposition.

Mountains May Depart looks at migration and emigration on a more global scale than your previous films. How has the shifting trends in Chinese emigration affected your filmmaking?

In the Eighties and Nineties, most Chinese people emigrated for a better education, healthcare, or work opportunities. Now, the surge in emigration consists mostly of middle-class families with stable lives. Their motivation for moving overseas is less material, yet more essential—such as concerns over air quality, and the lack of social ethics and civility in the country. The sudden move often creates a rupture in a family and the individual, especially in children.

The problems that arise from this rupture begin and end with language. We are rapidly losing our regional dialects, because Mandarin is now the standard being taught everywhere, and because people are always changing cities. When little Dollar visits his mother in Shaanxi after the divorce, he can only speak Mandarin and Shanghainese. In order to speak to her own son, Tao has to switch from her dialect to Mandarin. By 2025, he has completely forgotten how to speak Chinese. Behind these issues of language, there is a disappearance of tradition, culture, and individuality.

I always insist that the characters in my films speak in their native dialects, because it is an essential aspect of our identity. To me, language defines the bounds of who we are, and we are in danger of losing it. To me, Dollar is orphaned again and again, losing the place that made him who he was and starting all over again. He has developed a certain amnesia, and can’t remember where he is from. I fear this existential crisis arising from these issues of language—separating us from one another geographically and emotionally—is becoming more common in China now more than ever.

Aliza Ma is a New York–based programmer and writer specializing in Asian cinema. She has worked for Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF Cinematheque, and Museum of the Moving Image. She is the head of programming at Metrograph.