I left Marie-Pierre the task of teasing out the nuances of Chinese director Jia Zhangke's film in competition, Mountains May Depart, which thankfully leaves me some space to talk about it without assuredness but with avid curiosity. Because, you see, it is a tremendously odd film, as dramatic a change from his last film as that one, A Touch of Sin, was from what came before it. I don't think of Jia as a filmmaker who constantly surprises, yet looking back on his last features, I realize he keeps doing just that: I Wish I Knew, A Touch of Sin—all come from a new, acute angle than the previous film, sweeping up in their dramatic and visual expanses new ways of telling stories about a China both old and new. Here, thankfully, is an art house master whose inspiration cannot be quelled, who refuses to fall into habit.
Imagine this: I did not know what to think after its premiere, and I still do not know as I write this. I absolutely need and want to see it again, not something I can say for many other films in competition in Cannes. After the screening, I think the film was hobbled a little bit by not one but two DCP problems, the second one profound and for a moment very beautiful: during a tracking shot past an old couple, their image froze in a kind of red pointillist portrait of an elderly Chinese generation watching a new one wed, a pixel painting that froze on top of the image as the camera continued to move, with this red "print" laying over it all. These issue plus a final section—of three, spanning three time periods and aspect ratios, as Marie-Pierre described—in cringingly awkward English dialogue somewhat tainted the viewing experience. But what came before I still found confounding, superficially Jia Zhangke's most simple and direct drama, almost a melodrama that begins as a story of a woman (Jia's regular actress, Zhao Tao, in a brutally emotional performance) in a love triangle and when that woman becomes a mother the story and the film transition from her tale to that of her son.
The film's mise en scène is spare and, aside from a few cryptic flourishes I won't spoil, generally avoids populating the frame with the kind of world rich with cultural, mythological, political and indeed documentary connotations that usually so imbue this director's elegant staging. Instead, we get a surprising amount of close-ups and scenes using typical shot/reverse-shot editing; in other words, more straight-forward and conventional filmmaking to match the clarity of, first, Zhao Tao's romantic and existential oscillation between a coal miner and a business man, and later her son's ambivalence towards his mother. Though not immediately obvious to me, I got the constant sensation, the uncanny tinge, that is in nearly all films by this director, there here exists subtle and initially obscure layers of allegory and symbolism behind not only his mise en scène but the movement of characters through the film's story. This is hardly rare for Chinese art house cinema, but it's a cinematic language, like that of Apichatpong, that has internalized ways of addressing subjects that are forbidden to be clear and direct in a film—at the risk, of course, of baffling outsiders. But then, why is this film made anyway if not for the hope of a Chinese audience seeing and discussing it?
After a first viewing I had the charged sense that each of the film's three sections were being directed, or at least styled differently, and not just in the choice of a wider frame as we move forward in time. I could hardly be precise on how Jia does this or even, necessarily, what the implications are, but as Marie-Pierre points out, the film's first section coincides with the era of Jia's feature debut, the second section with his biggest financial success and most recent film...and a final section perhaps predicting a move to another country and another language—not just a spoken language but a cinematic one. A clear sign Jia may be changing syntax with each section is that at a few points in the 1999 story he either mimics or, as in Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, in fact uses period specific video cameras to cross-cut archival television footage with scenes with period-looking video of his actors, such as a wonderful club scene, recalling the dance sequence shot on an old cellphone in the cruise ship in Godard's Film socialisme, pixelating under the duress of improper shooting conditions. A word, too, should be given to some of the more radical and jarring intrusions into this relatively straightforward and lean drama, most especially really gorgeous images of what looks like glossy television footage recorded very close to the TV and at an oblique angle, distorting the images and filling the frame with supersaturated color—interjected suddenly between the much more placid drama Jia is evoking.
Dare I ask what does it all mean? I'm honestly not sure, but I can say that no film in the competition so thoroughly kept me ungrounded, unsure of what was to come next, and this despite the fact the story and emotional beats are so tightly structured, direct and perhaps even "conventional." This unmooring—it is this sense that for me indicates something else is at work here, a deeper structure, a more elaborate consideration. When the film features such broad political swipes like naming a child of the nouveau riche "Dollar," it initially feels like this is the level at which we're being addressed—and yet I have the sneaking suspicion something else is going on.