Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2015 6:32 pm 
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Lost generation - or lost touch?

Continuing his preoccupation with changes in modern China, which he delineated so richly in Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World and Still Life, Jia Zhangke divides his new feature Mountains May Depart into segments set in 1999, 2014, and 2025, advancing toward a dystopian future where spoiled Chinese sons (represented in Dollar, played by the interesting but somewhat marooned Dong Zijian) can only communicate with their fathers through an interpreter and electronic devices have alienated people who once were alive to each other in the old fashioned ways before the Internet and cell phones came. A long-contemplated project (like other Jia works) this contains saved video footage of discos leading to three different, progressively larger but more alienating, aspect ratios.

The idea of it is fascinating and the explanation given by Jia in interviews (at the New York Film Festival Q&A's, with an superb interpreter who never dropped a nuance) absolutely clear. But the fact of the film itself is less exciting filmmaking than his individually rich and dense, if overall patchy, previous film A Touch of Sin (NYFF 2013)

To begin with it is obviously schematic to give Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) two contrasting suitors, a rich entrepreneur (Zhang - Zhang Yi) and an honest man of the people (doomed Liangzi - Liang Jin Dong, who goes far away and gets lung disease working in deplorable conditions). The segment about Liangzi seems tacked on and sentimental, everything about Zhang overblown and crude. Then, what can he be getting at in giving the grown up son of divorced Zhang and Shen Tao, Dollar (Dong Ziian, an interesting actor but marooned here) a lover old enough to be his mother? And can we really believe that in the fifteen years from age seven to age twenty-two, living in Australia, he could have completely forgotten how to speak Mandarin, and require Mia (Sylvia Chang), his teacher-girlfriend, as interpreter to communicate with his own father? For that matter what has his father been doing in Australia all this time if he has not learned the basics of English? The final Dollar sequence seems like a bold and crude B-picture.

The early scenes between Shen Tao, Zhang and Lianzi, in square format and bright color to signify a simpler, pre-Internet pre-handheld device, pre-mega-capitalist China and to fit with Jia's earliest saved disco videos, read like silent film, but without any real beauty. Jia appears to have forgotten how to convey the rich kitsch of transitional China as he did in Pickpocket, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures and, as perhaps The World showed, his concept of how things are now may be a bit artificial -- because different eras coexist in "real life," and things aren't so schematic as he now wants to make them. Highly developed concepts and ideas are getting in the way of the the filmmaker's native instincts.

In the interesting Q&A at Lincoln Center after the press screening, Jia explained that he did a lot of interviews in different countries as a basis for this film. But can life be made up out of interviews?

Mountains May Depart/Shan he gu ren/山河故人, 131 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 New York Film Festival.

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