Tuesday 12 December 2017

Chinese way: "Mountains May Depart"

Jia Zhang-ke took a giant leap forwards with 2013's A Touch of Sin, where this previously gnomic filmmaker found the perfect format by which to articulate his concerns about the way the world turns nowadays without exhausting audience patience. Here was a portmanteau comprised of four medium-length tales of ordinary madness from contemporary China - short, sharp, often shocking fragments that, when combined, held a mirror up to the extraordinary changes being wrought on wider society. His follow-up Mountains May Depart, another portmanteau, offers a refinement of this approach: here are three tales, strung out over three decades, in such a way as to describe the direction capitalism might be carrying us all in.

It opens in 1999 - to pointed use of the Pet Shop Boys' "Go West" - with a love triangle between a young woman (Zhao Tao, the love hotel employee from Sin) and two male suitors who represent different positions on the socioeconomic ladder: a mine owner (Yi Zhang), who rather truculently regards our heroine as his property, and a mine worker (Jing Dong Liang), who may well be a better match in the long run, but offers considerably lower prospects. In 2014, we see a poignant reunion between the unlucky loser of this scenario, now settled with wife and child but physically ailing, and his former beloved, who has her own issues with a dying father and young son to attend. Finally, we arrive in 2025 - a time of translucent iPads, and the surest sign of Jia's newfound confidence in his own narrative powers - where we take up the story of this boy (Zijian Dong), who's very much his father's child (he's even named Daole, which transmutes into the classroom nickname "Dollar"), yet striving to resist the pressures placed on the young to become robots and drones in this brave new consumer society. (Tellingly, this last section requires very little CGI: the future, it would seem, is ours.)

Jia's still clearly experimenting with form: the first section comes in Academy ratio, with inserts of fuzzy digital video that you could take to be documentary or behind-the-scenes footage, and the title appears a full forty minutes in, only after this prologue's conclusion. Yet where once this filmmaker seemed ready - around the time of 2008's 24 City - to abandon narrative altogether and float off into the lofty realms of politicised video art, nowadays he appears so much more engaged with characters, actors, people; in these last two dispatches, you can see the making of one of 21st century cinema's great humanists. In both Sin and Mountains, the Cahiers-courting social and architectural theory of yore has been grounded in harsh street realities: it's there in the continued focus on mine workers - recurring motif of New Chinese Cinema: Diao Yinan's Golden Bear-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice might be seen as a stepping stone between the two films - tasked with converting their country into an economic powerhouse while remaining largely disempowered themselves.

Faced with such iniquity, the characters in Sin - from the Office Kitano stable - boiled over with murderous rage. The new film is more rueful, almost Kore-eda-like in its observation of familial rupture: it displays the listless sadness of people being swept down river towards a certain fate. (The flow thus reverses A Touch of Sin, which moved inwards from the coast to the city.) Along the way, you can't miss the sense that things aren't operating as they should, nor the sight of desolate industrial zones being plundered for all they're worth. The title could refer to the way coal reserves are exhausted - or how the landscape itself, being bought and sold with unconscionable rapidity, has become prone to sudden, dramatic change. (Jia's 2006 film Still Life documented those rural villages flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.) Planes are seen to fall from the sky; workers are forced to migrate to make ends meet. No wonder we're all so insecure. As Zhao's heroine says to her boy: "Nobody can be with you all through life." Get used to it, kiddo: this is the modern world.

It may be that Jia hasn't changed, but that the world around him is now revolving at such speed that we've caught up with what he was warning us to all along: what once looked arcane now feels very real. Even so, Mountains folds some hope into its concluding stages: the erstwhile posterboy for slow cinema knows there's a form of resistance to be offered in taking a slow train to spend time with one's loved ones, listening to the music of the past (woven in, as we hurtle from the present to the future, in the manner of the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas and Sense8) rather than the dictated product of the present, or simply leaving the ever-more-demanding city behind in order to head to what's been left of the country. This filmography is becoming increasingly essential, not just for what it reveals about China, but for what it has to say about any territory where capitalism has come to leave its stamp - which is to say, 'most everywhere. In just a matter of films, Jia has travelled beyond the niche to arrive at the universal: Mountains May Depart is the latest chapter in what's becoming a survivor's guide for all those left at the mercy of market forces.

Mountains May Depart opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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