“I don’t see myself as an ambassador of Chinese reality.”
Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s new film, Mountains May Depart, bears all the hallmarks of the seven previous features that have made him one of the most important filmmakers of our age. As always, Jia threads intimate moments in the lives of a few individuals into a canvas that works both as muted melodrama and large-scale reflection on Chinese society. Yet the film also features a significant misstep that has left many of his admirers wondering what went wrong.
The story unfolds in three episodes, set in three eras: 1999, 2014, and 2025. It begins in Jia’s home turf of Fenyang, a dusty city in northern China well known to film mavens as the setting for several of Jia’s features since his groundbreaking debut Xiao Wu/The Pickpocket (1997). Two childhood friends, the coal miner Liangzi and the newly-minted entrepreneur Zhang, vie for the attentions of Shen Tao, the daughter of a shopkeeper. When Shen Tao decides to marry Zhang, Liangzi throws away the key to his squalid little house and leaves town. By the time he returns to Fenyang, with lung cancer in 2014, Zhang has remarried in Shanghai, and Shen Tao, now a successful businesswoman in her own right, struggles to maintain a connection with their son Dollar. The overall effect of these two episodes is comparable to that of Jia’s signature mode of constructing sequences with tight and medium shots, and then closing them with a single wide shot whose scale anchors the scene in the story and heightens its emotional tenor. Stepping back from the simple tale of a love triangle, we see a chronicle of rampant capitalism, technological progress, and loss of traditional values.
The film sours as it moves into the future and shifts its focus to Shen Tao and Zhang’s son Dollar. Dollar is a shiftless young man who lives in Australia with his father, now a bitter, gun-toting millionaire who can only communicate with his son via an interpreter. The final episode’s overall tone is about as subtle as the name “Dollar,” and its washed-out photography is strikingly ugly, coming after the previous episodes’ restrained but deliberate use of lush colors. When I first saw the film, I wondered if Jia was referencing an awful Australian soap opera, complete with laughable English-speaking actors. But at heart I knew that this was the director’s own vision of the future, and that in pursuing it, he had lost the understated acuity that made the film’s first two parts emotionally devastating.
I went into this interview with the self-appointed mission to understand why Mountains May Depart is such a baffling combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. Ultimately, the politeness and the heightened formality of our short conversation, conducted via an interpreter (the excellent Vincent Chen), prevented me from asking too many hard questions. Instead, I left with a clearer understanding of the context for Jia’s entire body of work and a desire to give Mountains May Depart another chance. And, lest anyone should come away from reading the interview with the impression that Jia Zhangke is a technophobe, it should be noted that he has over 8.5 million followers on Weibo, the hugely influential Chinese micro-blogging site. The interview was conducted in late September, while Jia was in New York for his film’s premiere at the 53rd New York Film Festival.
Nicholas Elliott In an early text about your film, Xiao Wu/The Pick Pocket (1997), you wrote: “We watched the film, the people in the film watched us.” Is that a phenomenon that could be applied to your films in general?
Jia Zhangke I really want to use film to communicate with my audience. I want an interaction on an equal footing that is both mutual and 50/50. I really want to create enough space—enough blank space—in my films so that the audience can then draw on their own experience to fill in those blanks—to fill in those gaps. That’s how I can interact and communicate. I want to present things as more objective, rather than giving them some kind of subjective conclusion, some kind of statement I want to make. I really want to invite the audience in, so they will feel that they are part of the film. I want to change the roles from observer to participant. That is very important to me. And, of course, that has something to do with the issues and problems we deal with in Chinese cinema. Chinese films are very tapped down and one dimensional. What we tell you to believe in cannot be questioned. You cannot object. Filmmakers must rebel against this type of one-way filmmaking. I want to make cinema equal. I want a two-way street.
NE How does your new film, Mountains May Depart, encourage this participation of the audience? How is this mutual relationship created in concrete terms?
JZ I separate the film into three different episodes: 1999, 2014, and 2025. There are huge gaps in time and space. Viewers can use their own life experiences to fill in the blanks. It’s as if I have three buildings that I need to present. There’s a vast distance between each of them. And then you move from one to the next. The audience draws from their own experience to make the journey from point A to point B. And you only get to see the fragmented days or weeks of each particular character in different times.
NE So, of course, there are large blanks between the three periods, but the film masterfully directs how we feel about them—and in my opinion, as time passes, things get worse. Visually, the first part is beautiful; it’s saturated in color. By the third section it’s less attractive. It seems to me that the filming becomes more conventional with each stage of the story—by the third you’re relying on shot-counter-shots—and I wonder if you’re concerned that the film develops in such a way that the viewer is pushed away.
JZ I think this is the first time I have put the future on screen. These are things we haven’t experienced, so of course it’s going to be very subjective. If you think about the new technologies—not only social media, not only cell phones, but what is going to happen ten years from now—I think that the sense of alienation is already happening. I can only imagine that it is going to get worse. It seems to me that everything now has been so flattened. In the future we will feel a sense of abandonment—almost like orphans—because of the introduction of technology. With Twitter and WeChat you send people your feelings with emoticons. But when you actually look at these emoticons, do you really understand what the person’s true inner feelings are? Or are you seeing a flat, digitalized icon? I think about this anxiety toward the future and this sense of isolation, and I think that in all this fear we are afraid of the day when we will no longer be able to understand and feel the emotions of our loved ones.
NE Was it your intention to eventually alienate the viewer? The first section has such a tremendous feeling of nostalgia. It seems that anyone watching it would be tremendously moved—but by the third section alienation sets in.
JZ I wasn’t too concerned because I do think that the imagination I have for the future is not that surreal.
NE You have become a de facto ambassador of China for international filmgoers. I know many people look to you for news of what is happening in China, which is such a fast moving and, for many of us, mysterious society. I wonder to what degree you are aware of that, and if there is any frustration in feeling obliged to report about a country of billions, rather than just being allowed to tell a story about three people over twenty years.
JZ I don’t really see myself as an ambassador of Chinese reality. People can get a sense of that reality as a natural byproduct of my films, rather than the other way around. I don’t produce films to introduce Chinese reality to a larger audience. I try to focus on individual lives and the situations they live in. But even though Mountains May Depart focuses on the very intimate emotions of three different characters, these private feelings are also affected and impacted by the society they live in. I somehow magnify the emotional side more than the external aspect of Chinese society in general.
NE The original impulse for the film came from wanting to use video footage you shot in 1999. Can you talk about why?
JZ I wanted to look back at documentary footage I shot in 1999. I find it extremely affecting and thought it would work well with the stories I wanted to tell. The raw material might actually become a new movie. My process of making film is natural and organic. I have an idea for telling a story, then I look back on the footage I have. I go with the flow and things happen and I think: Wow, that’s surprising, it works well, it should be included.
NE You did a lot of research interviews for this film.
JZ A lot. I went to North America to interview immigrants from Shanxi province. The most interesting conversation I had was with a father in Washington DC. It had a lot to do with language. He only communicates with his son through Google Translate. It’s shocking. It’s also a possible future. You see that the culture being passed down from generation to generation, whether it’s the way you eat or the way you perform certain rituals, can in my opinion, completely disappear over one generation. I’m not trying to say that it’s good or bad. I simply find it shocking.
NE 1999 was a turning point for China as far as this evolution. Can we talk about what was happening then and why it was a particularly strong starting point for your film?
JZ The traumatic transformation didn’t just happen in 1999. It actually started happening in 1978 [with the beginning of economic reform in China]. So by 1999, twenty years had already passed from the beginning of the transformations brought by the open-door policy. But suddenly in 1999, you could actually feel that China was evolving at the same pace as the rest of the world, on some levels. When we listened to a foreign song in the 1980s, there was a lot of ideological weight to it, because it was probably one of the very few songs you could listen to after the Cold War. But by 1999, when we listened to the Pet Shop Boys’ song, Go West, which you hear in the film, there was no ideological weight to it, it’s just a catchy beat. The same with Coca Cola: in the 1980s, it had a very significant symbolic meaning as an American product, but by 1999 it was just a bottled beverage. In 1999 the popularity of cell phones and the Internet was not unique to China, it was worldwide and it fundamentally changed the way we communicate with other people. 1999 was a very different time than the end of the 1970s, which you see in my film, Platform. From the end of the ’70s to the end of the ’90s, it was economic development on steroids, to the point that by 1999 China was just like every other developed country—in terms of telecommunication and infrastructures. It is important for me to show a different side of Chinese reality. On the one hand, you have traumatic economic development and progress, but at the same time, there are people left behind by the whole transformation. It isn’t fair to neglect that part of our society. I think there are people who want to be blindly optimistic about everything, who say we should just look on the bright side, we should not deal with the issue of poverty. But poverty is an issue in every country. I want to make sure it is palpably present. My film represents contemporary reality through the class differentiation between three friends: one is a burgeoning capitalist on the way to being middle or upper class. But then you still have someone who is working class, who is working in a coal mine and never enjoys this idea of trickle-down development.
NE That’s powerfully embodied in the first shot of the second part of the film, with the photograph of the old coalminers and the character of Liangzi, who is the friend left behind. We’ve been talking about the past—the recent past—and we have talked about the future. Now I’d like to talk about the present. Or the present of your film, which occurs in the year 2014. I’d like to ask whether this was a particularly important time to set the film.
JZ Yes. The violent transformation of economic development, and how that violence has a huge impact on how we relate to each other, is significant. I think it’s the right time to capture that violence. I’m not objecting to or negating the idea of technological advancement. To me, the most important thing is to think about the cost and consequences of this type of progress. That’s what I hope my film is.
The Internet is a way to enjoy freedom of speech in China. It serves that function. But that same medium can be used by the government to brainwash the general public. I’m not here to say that the Internet is bad, or cell phones are bad. I’m just here to have a very cautious eye. I always go back to the question of what we have lost. It’s just as important as what we have gained.
Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on February 12.
Nicholas Elliott is the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma and a contributing editor for film for BOMB. In February he will be traveling to Japan to lecture on the films of Chantal Akerman at the French Cultural Institutes in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.