The title of director Zhangke Jia’s latest film, Mountains May Depart, suggests that the most solid and permanent-seeming features of a landscape will change over time, and may entirely disappear. By implication, even people blessed with beauty and loved abundantly may be left alone and without bearings. By enduring such changes while remaining emotionally vital and psychologically balanced, Zhangke’s protagonist, Tao (Tao Zhao), offers a pattern for an unexpectedly sad yet beautiful life.
The story is told in three chapters several years apart. In 1999, the lovely young Tao sings and dances in traditional New Year’s celebrations, trailed by her suitors, Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and Dollar (Zijian Dong). The former is a close friend of Tao and her father, who together run a convenience store. (Tao’s mother, presumably dead, foretells future absences.) Dollar, as the name implies, is a precocious entrepreneur.
Joyriding about town in Dollar’s big car with both swains, treating them equally as chums, Tao does not tip her hand. Impatient with her discretion, Dollar makes vague plans to disable his rival with dynamite. Tao discovers the explosives and makes him detonate them in a frozen river. The image of the blast recurs several times in the film, associating the entitled bully, Dollar, with China’s multiple industrial disasters and catastrophic engineering of the Yangtze River. The story of Tao and her friends parallels the tale of China’s heedless modernization.
Finally, Dollar warns Liangzi to forfeit Tao or lose his job at the coal mine. Liangzi refuses and is fired. But the harder blow falls when he sees Tao in Dollar’s arms at a nightclub. He leaves the city to begin his years as an impoverished itinerant worker.
Tao has, of course, chosen the wrong man. By 2014 she and Dollar have divorced and he has taken their son, Jinsheng, to live in luxury in Australia. When Tao’s beloved father dies, she insists that the boy return to China for the funeral. Tao and Jinsheng, virtual strangers, relate clumsily to each other, as he Skypes with his father’s mistress and Tao reels with grief for her father. At the funeral, she pushes the child to his knees to pray for the departed. But she also cooks trim, plump dumplings for him, the first he has ever tasted. By the time they have begun to warm to each other, Jinsheng must fly back to Australia. They never meet again.
Liangzi, too, has married and born a son, but he seems to take no joy in them, as they move exhaustedly from town to town, seeking work. Mining has ruined Liangzi’s lungs. When the family lands back in his home city, his wife seeks help from Tao, who brings money to Liangzi’s bedside. They do not talk about what might have been. Romantic regrets would trivialize the tragedy that his life has become.
In 2025, Jinsheng (Yi Zhang), who has grown up in Australia speaking English, tells his Chinese language class that he has no mother. Truly, he lacks not only a mother—Dollar’s mistress has evaporated—but a mother tongue and a homeland. And he is soon to cast off his father as well, after enlisting his teacher, Mia (Sylvia Chang), to translate as he tells his boorish parent that he is quitting college. The conversation goes nowhere, except to intensify Jinsheng’s infatuation with the elegant, sympathetic older woman, who is obviously, except to him, a mother substitute.
Herself embroiled in a nasty divorce and far from her home in Toronto, Mia begins an affair with her pupil. When he is taken for her son by a sales clerk, however, Jinsheng recoils. Foreseeing the inevitable, Mia delicately breaks off the affair.
They are all alone. In China, Tao makes dumplings for no one, yet fleetingly senses the presence of her son, perhaps a telepathic perception of his longing for her, and smiles. She takes her dog to the beach. The dog is a golden retriever, possibly the third she has owned over the course of the film, and an emblem of her faithfulness to life. Unleashing the dog, she performs tai chi on the rocks. Somehow, loss has failed to blow up her soul.