Mountains May Depart, the latest film from celebrated filmmaker Jia Zhangke (The World, Still Life), is part intimate love story and part cultural critique of a changing nation. The sweeping drama takes place in three chapters set in 1999, 2013, and 2025, unraveling the complex relationship between three friends, Tao (Zhao Tao, Zhangke’s real-life wife), Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang), and Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang), while capturing the evolution of China in an age of globalization.
Zhangke’s story is contemplative and arresting—if a bit uneven—with beautiful landscapes and touching moments, and at the heart of it all is Zhao’s striking, thoughtful performance as a woman who must navigating complicated love, both romantic and maternal. The film, which opens today in New York City and will be rolled out nationally over the next couple of months (see the full schedule here), marks the ninth onscreen collaboration for Jia and Zhao. Following the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, I sat down with each of them separately to discuss, via an interpreter, what the passage of time means to them, and what it was like working together. I condensed and combined those interviews below.
You chose to set this movie in three different years: 1999, 2013, then 2025. Why those years in particular?
Jia Zhangke: In the beginning I didn’t have any plans to go into the future, but I did want to start in 1999, because to me that was a very important time. First of all, for my generation, that was the time of our youth. I wanted to examine the way that the economic and technological shifts in our society have changed our inner feelings and value systems, and how they influence the way that we make choices as individuals living in society. In 1999, there really was a turning point when it came to technological shifts because people began to own cars in China, there were highways being built everywhere, but most importantly there were cell phones and the Internet became very pervasive.
There are moments in the film where you are working with mixed media, where there’s a more video-like, grainy quality, for some of those 1999 scenes.
Jia: In 1999 or 2000, I got my first digital camera and I was very excited. And I would go around filming many things with my cinematographer. When I started writing the script, I pulled out all of this old documentary video footage. And the footage that I pulled out was from something I shot inside a disco, and was astounded and absolutely magnetized by this. First I wanted to see: what did the 1990s look like? What clothes were people wearing, what did the streets look like at the time, and what were people wearing? So when I saw this disco footage… there was unspeakable historical specificity that I saw, that couldn’t be recreated.
Zhao Tao, your character—especially in the first third of the movie—is in the center of a love triangle, but doesn’t want to admit it. How did you concieve this three-way relationship?
Zhao Tao: I think my relationship with these two men in the film was not so explicit in the script, so my job was to flesh out all the different experiences over our lifetime together. Perhaps one of them was a neighbor; perhaps one of them was a schoolmate. So that was my first approach to this triangular relationship. … I think for the relationship between Liangzi and Tao, it’s one that spans very far into their past, and before there was any love there was always a friendship. And then suddenly for Liangzi, this feeling of intimacy turned into one of romantic love; but for Tao, she still sees him as a friend.
As for her relationship with Jinsheng, she doesn’t only choose him ultimately for his material wealth, but also for his emotional support and his initiative. For example, in the store, when she hears the song that the woman puts on and she really likes it, maybe Liangzi has no reaction to that at all, whereas Jinsheng runs out and gets the CD and then comes back and plays it for her. And this sort of romantic, emotional quality is something that I think all women appreciate in men.
It also seems like your character is more amused than actually enticed by Jinsheng—his character, his fancy red car.
Zhao: I think that for the character of Tao, one of the reasons that I like her is that she’s a very normal girl—she’s an “every girl.” And all of us are invariably affected by our material surroundings, and that, inevitably, in turn, reflects on our value system. Tao thinks that material wealth will bring her a better life, and so she makes the painful decision to give her son, Dollar [played by Dong Zijian], to her ex-husband when he moves to Shanghai or overseas; she tells him that he’s going to have a better life with her ex-husband. But I think everyone—including myself—to a certain degree believes that our choices can’t be separate from these changing values. … I think when Tao faces the choice to give up custody of her son, it’s probably the most painful decision she has to make as a woman … I think on the one hand, money can never replace true love, but on the other hand, everyone is, to a certain degree, affected by a certain sense of material well-being.
When we meet Dollar as a young adult, he can barely speak the language of his father. Zhangke, do you have a fear of Westernization and globalization in China?
Jia: Well I’m not criticizing immigration. I think that is a basic human freedom for everyone. In fact a lot of my friends have emigrated from China over the years for various individual problems they may be facing in their lives, including their children’s education, and maybe even the very intense smog problem in China. I think that the ability to choose to immigrate is a basic human freedom. I think the important thing is to examine that within the milieu of rapid globalization, how to protect our individual cultural backgrounds and language. Because I think that language is really the last vestige of culture.
Was there anything in particular that you found difficult or just very challenging to film, emotionally or technically?
Zhao: I think this role is one of the more difficult roles I’ve played, and it posed a lot of challenges for me.
I think the most difficult thing about this role, to me as an actress, is having to portray the same person in her youth and middle age and old age. Most films only deal with characters during one specific time in their life. But with Tao, and Mountains May Depart, I have to portray this character in so many different changing times … The Tao of 1999, for instance—she’s a young girl, and I designed this character to have a very high voice… And I wanted her body to be so full of vitality that it appeared that it could jump up at any moment, so I designed this character to be very youthful and simple and happy, and very trusting of whatever the world presented in front of her.
I think the most difficult time to portray was Tao’s middle age, because of the emotional complexity that had formed within her after going through so many life experiences—from marriage to the failure of her marriage, and many tragedies. So it was very difficult to convey all of that emotional complexity in this period … And in terms of physical design, during this time Tao wears no make-up, so that all the freckles and wrinkles and imperfections would be magnified on Tao’s face. To me, this represents the life experiences that she has endured. And it’s not imperfection, and it’s not ugliness, but I think it’s rather beautiful that she wears her experiences on her face in this way.
You’ve now worked together for many years and made several films together. How has your relationship evolved over time?
Zhao: I think the biggest difference in this film, as opposed to our previous collaborations, was that the director actually had a complete script that he completed before filming and that he stuck to while we filmed. So, as an actor, it gave me more time to prepare my role and to fill in those blanks.
Jia: There’s a lot of changes, because Tao has changed a lot herself. I think at the time that we made Still Life, she had a very direct relationship with the emotional qualities that she portrayed onscreen. And since then, she’s worked with a British director and an Italian director on their films and so when we re-collaborated on A Touch of Sin, I realized there were a lot of changes in the way that she understood and grasped the way to portray her character.
I think she’s really strong at filling in aspects of the character where the script doesn’t explicitly explain, and she now asks me a lot of questions about the script. One of the most perplexing questions she asks me is, “What time of day is this event happening?” To me I think there’s a morning and nighttime, but for her she wants to know specifically what time of day it is. And that’s because she’s preparing her body to fit this time of day when the event is taking place, because our body is different from the early morning to every minute of every day.