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Maybe every country at any moment in time has one director that single-handedly manages to provides a comprehensive view on his own nation. For his own people to reflect on, and for the world to see. People like Ken Loach, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Truffaut, and today these could be Tobias Lindholm, Christian Paetzold, Steven Soderbergh. Never mind the respective quality of each film, but as an oeuvre, these are powerful depictions of life, in all its gory and glorious reality.

For today’s China, in my opinion nobody can challenge Jia Zhangke in this role. With a fantastic stretch from “Platform” and “Pickpocket” in 2000, through the splendid wasteland of “The World” and peaking at 2006’s “Still Life” (still up there with the best mainland Chinese films I have ever seen), he will not let go, he seeks to show the happy and ill fates of the ordinary people, in how the concept of ordinary shifts through China’s development, he shows victims and crooks, people passing their lives in passive endurance and those engaging in a constant uphill struggle. Scott Tobias writes “No director has done more to chronicle change in contemporary China and the instability it breeds in the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.” Well spoken!

“Mountains May Depart” (judging from the Chinese title, intended as a companion piece to “Still Life”) may not be the most coherent or powerful of his films. It does, however, achieve one thing the previous works did not achieve – it uses a large time scale to show the consequences of choices made decades ago. Starting in 1999, with a love triangle in a decrepit and depressing coal mining town in Shanxi  province, we follow the three leads through life. The choice of partners, choice of location, and choice of life concept all play out through the decades until 2014 (when we meet the three again, in different circumstances), and in 2025, when some choices are just not reversible anymore. We need to judge by ourselves whether something could have been changed if only 25 years earlier people had felt less bound by tradition and expectations. Formally, the film’s aspect ration changes with each time leap, starting from grainy 1:1.33 images of dusty Fenyang and ending with colourful widescreen Australia. It’s a fake sign of splendour, though, image brilliance is not reflected in life’s brilliance.

Tao Zhao as Tao Shen plays the central female role, and for once she may be the weak spot of the film, as she remains smiling in the face of adversity for just a bit too long to remain credible. Liang Jindong as Liangzi, her would-be lover, is more powerful in his mostly silent acceptance of the Tao’s choice. Zhang Yi as Zhang Jinsheng has the somehow ungrateful part of the newly rich twerp to play. We may start out despising him, but in the end, when he is sitting in Australia, faced with a son  who does not speak his language and is completely detached from anything his father stands for, you may well feel a bit sad for him.

Sadness always plays big in Jia’s films, and this is no different here. Sadness looms over two and a half decades of life, and the only bit of hope is – again – Tao, who to the very end, and in the very final scene, takes life with a smile and a dance… in your face, sad world!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mountains_may_depart_2016

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