The Status of Love in the Age of Consumerism: An Interview with Jia Zhangke

The Chinese director of "Mountains May Depart," which premiered in competition in Cannes this year, discusses his new film.
Amir Ganjavie

Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart, which premiered in competition in Cannes this year, could be seen as a symbolic representation of the status of romance in the age of consumerism. By focusing on three different time periods in 1999, 2014, and 2025, the director shows how emotions and feelings change and what could be the future of human relationships in the age of consumerism and telecommunication. This film is a utopian project with big ambitions that is never satisfied with itself and its apparently romantic theme. The film moves from one genre to another, one mode to another, and one screen aspect ratio to another; with this in mind, it needs to be seen as a fragmentary movie, a form of experiment in cinema; some sections will remain deep in the mind and others might seem much too sketchy and embryonic.

What follows is a roundtable conversation with director Jia Zhangke following the screening of Mountains May Depart at the Cannes Film Festival.

QUESTION: Thematically, what is the relationship between this film and the rest of your body of work?

JIA ZHANGKE: My previous films definitely talked about ideal consumerism, but not so much in terms of human relationships and in terms of love and emotions. For this film, I want to use it not only as a way to think about consumerism but also to think about the consequences of consumerism for the next generation. I represent this in the movie, such as when you see the character Tao decide that because of the father of her child’s wealth she must sacrifice her son with the intention of giving him a better life. I think that is a very typical way to make such a decision within the consumerist mentality, but then with that you’ll see the dire consequences in 2025. I almost see this as warning for myself, since I’d see something play out similarly in my personal life; ten years from now, a lot of the decisions that I am making right now may have negative consequences So I do think that is the reason why I’m placing everything over such a long period of time in these three different chapters of the film. And it begs the question about what is the meaning of life; if not consumerism then what is it? I think that we need to go back to the Chinese philosophy about four stages of life: birth, aging, sickness, and death. No one can escape this, no matter how much money you have; it is inevitable. So I think that hopefully we’ll start to rethink human relationships

QUESTION: And you showed this impact through the loss of identity, particularly Chinese identity. What is Chinese identity for you now? Is it history, language, culture, Chinese socialism?  What is it that we risk losing when we move far away from home and forget about our parents?

JIA: Here I definitely narrowed my perspective to one aspect—language—and in the “Future” chapter of the film you can see these overseas Chinese moving to a different country. These next generations don’t even speak Mandarin, let alone the dialects of their parents. In fact, through my research and interaction with Chinese overseas I can see a lot of families in which only one of the parents speaks some English and then of course the children are all assimilated into the American culture, speaking only English, and that could create a huge problem in terms of communication. In the past, when we thought about our parents we were supposed to be the most intimate person to them, but in my movie the future generation has linguistic issues and somehow cannot communicate with each other. Here, one of the parents would usually be the interpreter or translator for the whole family and if that person either dies or the parents divorce then there is no way whatsoever for the kids to interact or to communicate with the remaining parent. I saw this firsthand when I interacted with those Chinese overseas, and in one case I literally saw a father in Washington D.C. using Google Translate to communicate with his son. I was completely shocked and wondered how anyone could be able to return home if he or she does not speak the mother tongue. For me, that is a very, very crucial element and I wanted to incorporate it into my film, even though right now you don’t see this as a commonplace practice.

QUESTION: Why did you decide to set part of the film in the future rather than put it all in the past working up to the present?

JIA: As I mentioned, I wanted to shoot something about emotional connections, about love, and when I decided to do that I thought the best way to capture feelings such as love would be through the passage of time. We need distance through time in order to see things clearly. On top of that, I’m older now and have more experience with the ups and downs of personal relationships and emotions and our loves, so I really wanted to have a new understanding and perspective on human connections and human emotions and how they evolve over time. That’s why time is important in the film and spans across decades from 1999 all the way to 2025. Now, the reason why I have these elements of the future in 2025 chapter is because when we think about the decisions and the choices we make now contemporarily, they all have very serious consequences for the future. So I use time to examine how emotions and love evolve, and it creates a vantage point in the future so that we can then look back to ten years before and the decisions and the choices that we made and think about what might be their consequences.

In these three chapters you can see the characters when they are in their youth, middle age, and much older age. If we were to just stay in the first chapters then we would probably have very simplistic, pure, romantic love stories. But that’s not the only thing that I want to look at. I want to look at how that actually evolves over time, and I think that when you’re young you might experience love and human emotions very differently. At the time, it might be about innocence, sweetness, and romance but then later on when you look at the chapter in 2014, that sort of taste of love and emotions has definitely evolved into maybe bitterness or being more practical and pragmatic. Not only does time change us but also the society in which we live. At that particular time we change the way that we relate to each other and we express our emotions very differently in different time periods. That is also the reason why I need these three different chapters, this span of twenty six years: to not only look at emotions but also more importantly the transformation and evolution of love and relationships.

QUESTION: And why did you shoot in a city in Australia as the location for the future in the movie?

JIA: I thought about many good places to shoot this film and I went to North America, including Canada and the United States (Toronto, Vancouver, Washington DC, and New York) in order to find a location. I thought it would probably be better and easier for me to cast Shan Chi immigrants in Toronto where you can find many of them, but the reason why I ended up shooting in this port on the West Coast of Australia is because it is such a faraway place that the weather is even opposite; when it is summer in Australia it is winter in China. Australia gives a sense of being a faraway place where you can escape.

QUESTION: Each chapter of the film is shot in a different screen ratio. What was the reason behind this aesthetic choice ?

JIA: The title Mountains May Depart actually started more than ten years ago, though in the beginning I had no idea what the story would be. At that time, around the year 2000, I had a MiniDV camera. So I brought my toy around and just told people that I was making a film called Mountains May Depart, even though I had no script. I was just endlessly shooting documentary material and footage to document what was happening at the time, and then I looked back at all the footage I had shot in 2000. I was really touched and moved and inspired by a lot of the things that I had already collected, and since that was made using my MiniDV the ratio was 1:1.33 and I decided that in order for me to seamlessly integrate this old footages into the new footage, I had to retain the same aspect ratio in the first chapter. Now, similarly in 2014, I also used the camera to endlessly shoot certain footage of coal miners and the coal industry, which I then decided to use in the 2014 chapter. That ratio was 1:1.85 and again in order for me to integrate the old footage with the new I just kept the ratio the same. Then I thought about the future chapter and said to myself that I already had two different aspect ratios so I might as well use a third ratio for the third chapter so that they would be almost like time markers, visualizing the transition from one time frame to the next.

QUESTION: There are things in the movie that appear suddenly and without necessary connection with the plot such as fireworks or the airplane that crashes. Or you refer to the Malaysian air crash in the movie, which is hard to understand its connection with the story. What is the logic behind these?

JIA: In life you have moments when unexpected things and accidents happen; those are times when you really start to rethink your life and love. The plane crash, or the reference to the Malaysian airliner, is to bring out that unexpected aspect of accidents in life and how that would change the way you think about your relationships, love, and emotions. When I was back home when I was growing up I had a lot of friends whose parents were aviators in the air force at the nearby base. Every year I would hear stories about my classmates losing their fathers because of accidents while they were flying. So to me unexpected accidents happen all the time and they make us think about relationships and love on a completely different level. I didn’t really spend a lot of time explaining the accident scenes in the movie because just like accidents themselves they come and they go unexpectedly; sometimes you remember them and sometimes you don’t.

Shadi Javadi assisted with this interview.

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