A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother
Since his first, 1998 feature, Xiao Wu, Chinese cinema’s “Sixth Generation” writer-director-producer Jia Zhang-ke has been a festival favorite and award-winner. Much less so with the public, which shies away from subtitles and, more to the point, is not attracted to his long, slow scripts and visuals of barren rural China, crumbling structures, smoggy cities, industrial sites. This is again true of the latest, 2015 Cannes, Toronto and New York festivals selection Mountains May Depart/Shan He Gu Ren, in which even some of the final section English could do with subtitles.
The title refers to geographical features, which like the Rockies and Gibraltar eventually crumble, as opposed to love which is here to stay, relationships, and feeling for place.
Its tripartite structure over a hundred thirty-one minutes is further emphasized by each part’s being in a different aspect (width-to-height) ratio, not “plan[ned] in advance” and not contributing much one way or the other. Tied together by characters, places, recurring songs, and variations in repeated scenes that nineteen-year-old Daole Dollar Zhang (Zijian Dong) styles déjà vu, the twenty-six-year-long story is still confusing. This is partly a result of cultural unfamiliarity but basically comes because of the awkward presentation and development of a straightforward story. Especially unwarranted is the shift in tone, character and geography, to 2025 Australia, in “chapter” three, where mature divorcing Chinese-language teacher Mia (Sylvia Chang) is bedded by, or beds, Dollar, whose cocksure father Jinsheng Zhang (Yi Zhang) is by now reduced to a paranoid who has lost lots of money but gathered lots of pistols.
In Zhang-ke’s inland hometown of provincial Fenyang, the 1999 Spring Festival Gala introduces dance, folk and popular music and local belle Tao Shen (Tao Zhao, the director’s wife), rather innocent while wooed by two lifelong friends, Liangzi Hongdong (Jin Dong Liang) and Jinsheng Zhang. She sort of works in her father’s small electronic supplies shop, Liangzi is in charge of helmet storage for a declining coal mine, and more ambitious and aggressive Jinsheng has a gas station but nurses big plans.
As much for his snazzy new red car as anything, she opts for the incipient capitalist latter, who tries to get a gun but settles for buying the mine and firing his rival. Quiet disappointed Liangzi leaves for Henan, vowing never to return but only to come back fifteen years later, dying of lung disease, in need of money and with a wife and baby son in tow. In the interim, Tao, too, has had a son, Dollar, but is divorced and agreed to let him live with her ex, now a successful entrepreneur in Shanghai.
When the seven-year-old boy (Jing Dong) visits her, his birth mother, she is nervous, jealous of his stepmother, and awful with the boy. By ten years later, still in the future from today, father Jinsheng is bankrupt, apparently wifeless again, and living in Perth, where unsettled adolescent Dollar cannot communicate in his native Mandarin and does not know if his mother is alive or dead but carries the keys to her (and his) house just as she keeps the keys to Liangzi’s, while denying in Mia’s class that he was born of woman, thus arousing the teacher’s motherly instincts.
Modernity vs. tradition, gadgets as against the old ways, separation compared to proximity, dismissal contrasted with lasting loyalty: “some things cannot be destroyed by time.” Well and good, but the film’s sometimes brilliant pieces cannot rescue the vehicle. Some parts, but not the sum of those parts, are better than the whole.
(Released by Kino Lorder; not rated by MPAA.)