Over the next two weeks, The Atlantic will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2016. Today: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. (The whole “And, Scene” series will appear here.)
The director of the 2015 drama Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke, has clashed with the Chinese government over the content of his films throughout his career. That’s in part because Jia belongs to the so-called “sixth generation” of Chinese cinema—a more anti-establishment and confrontational approach to filmmaking that emerged in the late 1990s. So it’s not surprising that the director begins his latest film (released in the U.S. in February) in 1999, a year weighted with symbolic and actual importance for a resurgent China preparing to dominate the global stage.
With Mountains May Depart, Jia is telling a story about his country that feels at once hopeful and bleak. This duality is perfectly reflected in the film’s opening and closing scenes, two very different dance sequences set to the same song. As the opening credits roll, the camera pushes in on the protagonist Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) and her friends as they dance to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West.” It’s a vision of optimism and youth, simultaneously choreographed and spontaneous; the group is dancing in formation, but with a seemingly joyous lack of practice. Even watching the clip entirely free of context, it’s hard not to be delighted by Shen’s abandon (she’s the woman in denim who eventually leads the conga line).
A satiric anthem for the capitalist western world, “Go West” has lyrics that might feel a bit on the nose for a film about China’s past, present, and future. (Set in Jia’s home province of Shaanxi, an industrial part of central China, Mountains May Depart takes place over three time periods: 1999, 2014, and 2025.) “There where the air is free / We’ll be what we want to be,” Neil Tennant sings. “Now if we make a stand / We’ll find our promised land.”