Sitting on the second balcony while viewing ‘Mountains May Depart’ at the immense Elgin theatre in Toronto, on an equally grand screen, the latest film from acclaimed Chinese writer/director, Zhangke Jia spends the majority of its first reel in jarring 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio. To non tech buffs it compresses the picture into more of a box shape. This, however, isn’t to merely provoke 90s nostalgia or passage of time – as the movie progresses from the late 90s to 2025, the wider the ratio becomes – but to instead work on a thematic level; the black bars, mountains as the title suggests, slowly departing from one another.
“How about just the two of us next time?” Yi Zhang’s Zhang Jinsheng asks Tao (Tao Zhao) during particular 90s scene. “Two is better than three,” referring to their mutual friend Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) turned third wheel. Suddenly the joy Tao was feeling only moments before in learning to drive Zhang’s not so shiny but new car, has all but fleeted. Zhang has driven a stake through trio and spurred a love triangle. Jia, though, takes this tired conflict and launches it to new cinematic heights – adopting the compressed frame to stress Zhang and Laingzi’s battle for Lao as she is reluctantly squeezed between her best friends.
Culminating in an argument at an enthrallingly lit dance club scene, Jia employs a single take, which, due to the crammed frame never fits all three into a one shot. Alternatively, the feud plays out in off screen voices that show the recipient’s reaction – mostly Lao’s frightened objection – over whomever is yelling. The most compelling aspect of the compressed ratio, though, is that when a two-shot does occur, Tao is notably squished by one of the men. It is here, where, for the first time, we get the sense that no matter who wins the argument, Tao’s freedom and ambitions will be compromised.
Thus, ‘Mountains May Depart’ follows Tao as she separates herself from the poor Liangzi and the wealthy entrepreneur of Zhnag. Through China’s economy, an underlying element throughout, grants Zhnag, and his eventual wife in Tao, a fortune. The two become divorced supposedly soon after the birth of their son, Dollar – a conflict we don’t actually get to see but can make sense of by recalling Jia’s aforementioned use of aspect ratio, a true testament to his gratifying ability to convey a central aspect of Tao’s character through an uncanny play on tech.
As Tao distances herself from Zhang and Laingzi – as much as she’s brought back into their lives via guilt, regret, and redemption – her and ours’ horizon grows. Whereas Jia exhibits the confines of the compressed frame in cluttered stores, dance clubs and homes, he turns to entrancing landscapes overlooking a modernly futuristic Australia or the vast Indian Ocean when 2025 permits him the full screen, reflecting Tao’s aspirations through Dollar.
If it isn’t evident by now, the passage of time, more importantly how it’s weaved into the visuals, narrative and characters, is perhaps the major draw of the film. Unlike many other pictures that strive to convey this epic evolution, Jia’s script fractions each period with enough time and significance that by 2025, the 3rd time jump and 3rd act, it genuinely feels as if we have witnessed the transformation of both a person and a culture without relying on cheap offhand mentions of ironically true future predictions.
Technology, however, is a developing point of interest during the film’s 35-year timespan. Rather than merely throwing in a random Walkman, Jia utilizes the evolution of electronics to symbolically stress the devolution of relationships. In the 90s, a customer plays CD on a stereo – the song that plays encapsulates the entire room as Jia extends the shot that holds the miniscule frame over the couple who seem even closer together before comfortably fitting Lao into the rotation. Conversely, years later, Tao, now an estranged mother from her son, scrolls through pictures of Dollar smiling beside expensive cars and in front of exotic locals – luxuries she couldn’t afford, and memories she couldn’t be a part of. This is also true with Dollar’s relationship with his father, who doesn’t understand English and is reluctantly forced to resort to Google translate to communicate with his son, who he doesn’t seem too interested in talking with in the first place.
‘Mountains May Depart’ does make audiences aware of its 131-minute runtime by a ostensibly prolonged third act that, despite possibly being in roughly equal length to its previous counterparts, trudges while following Dollar almost exclusively. As opposed to Tao, who’s arguably the protagonist, I admittedly longed for more of Zhao’s vigorously human display, breaking down into tears just as easily as striding with poise and zeal. In the acclaimed director’s 7th feature film, Zhangke Jia has attributed epic scale and profoundly relevant ideas to the classic, albeit modernly exhausted, love triangle conflict. Through subtle use of tech, Jia supplies a new pair of eyes – proving it’s not what we view, but how we view the world, cultures and people around us.
‘Mountains May Depart’ receives a 4.5/5