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From Cannes: "Shan He Gu Ren" ("Mountains May Depart") Beautiful but Flawed

Dir. ​Jia Zhang-Ke (Dist. TBA)—4 Stars

Jia Zhang-Ke is the leader of the “Sixth Generation” directors in China, a school that emerged in the ’90s placing a focus on the life of ordinary people and social problems in modern China. His new movie “Shan He Gu Ren” (English “Mountains May Depart”) is less political than his previous works, but in keeping with his usual style, it gives a vivid portrait of the emotions of the most ordinary families.

The film opens with a group of people, led by the shop assistant Tao (Zhao Tao), dancing to “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys. It is the spring festival in 1999, and the small northern Chinese town they live in is full of naïve hope for the future. However, some people are having a better time than others. Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), who works in the oil business, has become rich overnight while his coalminer friend, Liangzi (Liang Jingdong), barely gets by as the price of coal drops. Both in love with Tao, Jinsheng buys a Volkswagen and drives Tao around while Liangzi becomes an inconvenient obstacle between the two. Eventually, Jinsheng marries Tao and has a son called Dollar (a name born from his father’s love of money), and Liangzi leaves the town to find work in the city.

This is the first story in the film’s three-part structure; the other two happen in 2014 and 2025, respectively. While each story has its own focus, the thread of the film is the love between Tao and Dollar, a love that continues for 20 years, even as they are parted and live on different continents. What is most fascinating, though, is how the director blends the story of a family into the vicissitudes of the society. Every story in the film happens at a time when China is experiencing huge changes, from economic growth to increasing trends of emigration. In many moments of the film, the director cleverly suggests the existence of a larger order of existence, and this cosmic power also serves as an important force that changes the life of the characters.

The theme that runs throughout the story, however, is that some things never change no matter how different the world has become. The English title is a reference to an old saying in China: “Mountains may depart, but emotions stay the same.” This contrast between the cosmic and the human is what makes this film beautiful. From his early works “Xiao Wu” and “Platform” to today’s “Mountains May Depart,” Jia always tells the story of the struggles and confusions of tiny individuals in a huge society, creating in his own work a vision that never changes.

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However, “Shan He Gu Ren” also has some very obvious problems. The third part of the film is much more loose and sometimes overly sentimental compared to the others, and the overall story is not very convincing. Many portraits of emotions are too direct and intentional (an important reason for the Chinese press’s hatred for it; another is that the story is clichéd from a Chinese point of view). For example, when Tao has to leave Dollar, she gives him a souvenir and tells him plainly how she loves him. In a more delicate film, the sentiments would probably be more reserved, and her love could be expressed through something as subtle as a gaze. Another example is the excessive crying scenes in the movie, which become a bit distracting when almost every character is given at least one.

Still, though, “Mountains May Depart” has an interesting structure and tells a story of some beauty, for all its faults. While the director’s portrait of the mother-son dynamic has a some imperfections, it is compensated by his brilliant vision of the social background where it takes place.

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