It’s possible that no frequent pairing of helmer and star in contemporary cinema — or, for that matter, creative union of husband and wife — is quite as fruitful as Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao‘s, and their new picture, Mountains May Depart, is potentially their most impactful yet. A three-part epic about the China of the recent past, contemporary moment, and near future that explores as many aspect ratios as it does decades, it’s a film whose large ambition, courtesy Jia’s continued fascination with wherever his native nation might stand and where it could go, is given a human face by Zhao’s magnetic presence and perceptible absence.
Shortly after seeing their project at last year’s New York Film Festival, I was fortunate enough to interview the pair and probe this film’s many layers, from recent changes in language and communication formats to evolving forms of digital video. That’s only scratching the surface, but although the need for translation cut down on the amount of things I might ask — a fun fact befitting this film: I believe the only words immediately understood between the three of us were “hello,” “thank you,” “Google Translate,” and the names of various iPhone models — there’s much to be gleaned from what’s contained herein. If you want more to consider, there’s only one real option: seek the film out for yourself.
A special thanks must be extended to Vincent Cheng, who provided on-site translation.
The Film Stage: There are a lot of places to go when discussing Mountains May Depart, and so it may be wisest to begin with the most basic question: when and how did the shape of it start to take hold?
Jia Zhangke: After I finished A Touch of Sin, I suddenly wanted to make a film about human emotions — about love. The reason is because, when I turned 45, I started to have a new understanding and perspective of the loves and emotions I’d experienced in the past. It needs time in order for me to examine that; that’s the thing about aging and turning 45. And the other things about feelings and human emotions, even though it’s very intimate and private, they can be hugely impacted by society, the environment you live in, and, in this particular case, the technology that we introduced. Within this particular society full of customers, that completely changed the value system, thinking that money could solve everything.
I also realized I was a victim, a receiver, of this consumer culture. I used to visit my mother in my hometown, when I do have time, and, when I visit her, I’d give her some money, thinking it will provide her with a better life. But she wasn’t happy. She didn’t want the money; she wanted to spend long-lasting, quality time with me. The other thing that really excited me to make this film is that I’m going to experiment a different way to create my narratives. In the past, I tend to use a very restrained and inward expression of emotions rather than outward and explosive; for this one, I wanted an abundance of emotions that you can observe in every shot.
And, if I may use a metaphor — or something to represent the feelings I want to portray with this film — when the blood is flowing in your veins, usually you don’t really feel the movement of the blood in your veins, but, suddenly, when you encounter a certain situation and are feeling excited, you feel this rush of blood to your head and your extremities become cold. Then, when it dissipates and you are sad, you do feel how the blood in your veins flows differently from how it would usually flow. So the influx of this blood sort of represents how I wanted to portray this film.
The other aspect of this film is about the imagination, how feelings and emotions change in terms of how people used to be very closely and intimately connected, with interactions that are very meaningful and very deep. Now, because of cell phones or the Internet, they somehow make us feel isolated and alienated, and that takes a span of 26 years for me to bring that to forefront.
When playing this character in the 1999 portion, how much — if at all — were you considering what happens to her in later segments? Do you internalize this or rather do what’s possible to keep the “present moment” solely in mind?
Zhao Tao: As an actor, the method I usually have to create a character that I have to play is to always map out this character from her birth all the way to her death, and all the journeys in-between — adolescence, middle-age, later years. That’s my method. But for this particular character that I play in 1999, I want to make sure that she is young, naïve, happy-go-lucky, and will look at the things right in front of her and believe everything — be very optimistic — and I don’t think this character, in 1999, will actually think about what is going to happen in 2014 or 2025. She just couldn’t see that far. Everything is right in front of her face and she’s dealing with that reality right in that moment.
It’s said that this film follows a written screenplay more faithfully and more rigidly than your previous features. Why that approach for this story? What about it necessitates a stronger fidelity?
Jia: The reason why it pretty much followed a script — especially for the third episode — is because the screenplay is written in Chinese, but then all the dialogue has to be translated into English. Since I have some limitations with the English language, we therefore have to follow the script and shoot — especially the third part of the film. The other thing that relates to this is also because it’s shot in Australia, and they have very strict restrictions and guidelines in terms of what’s acceptable and is not. Even if I find a public space that’s very interesting and in which I want to shoot, I can’t unless I go through getting a license and permits to shoot the film in certain locations. Based on all these objective limitations and reasons, I have to somehow adapt to that more prescribed way of making this film.
So not only that: most importantly, it’s because this is a script about human emotions and loves, and I think that, when I was writing the script, I very precisely, very delicately had written down the emotions and feelings I’m trying to portray. I think that, in order for the actors to somehow get into these characters, it would take time for them to embody those lines and dialogues. I think that’s also one of the major reasons it follows a script rather than just improvise on the spot.
Zhao, did you follow the third section as it was being constructed? Were you talking to actors, viewing footage, or even on the set?
Zhao: I was not that involved with the third part of the shooting. Even though I did go with the crew to Australia, I was never on location; I never did observe how they were shot. My main task is to take care of the director — to observe the film. [Laughs]
The 1999 segment features digital video that, in its appearance, recalls your earlier films. Did you enjoy returning to an aesthetic that hasn’t been prominent in your work for some time?
Jia: During 1999 and 2000 was the time I had my first DV camera, so I would usually, aimlessly go about shooting footage. This is a habit I still maintain up to this day, and I have a lot of raw footage using different types of cameras and captures throughout the years. I might have a future plan of editing this footage and making it into a film. Since the story starts in 1999, I need to recreate and reenact that particular era, and, for research purpose, I thought, “Well, I have footage from 1999. I might as well take a look at how people look, at how people talk at the time.” When I revisited that footage, I realized it’s very affecting and I might as well include them in the first episode as well.
So I do think that footage really captures the psychological state of the youth or general public at the time, and I think it would be a great idea to not only juxtapose but integrate them. On the one hand, you have the actual documentary-type of reality, and then you have the fictional, creative reality. By combining these two, you create the realities that these characters can somehow position themselves in.
Jia, when you planned the 1999 portion, how much did you consider any changes in language from then to now? They don’t feel significant to me, but perhaps there are subtleties you wished to explore. Zhao, considering the way you map a character’s life, did you find yourself considering the way you spoke in 1999 and then try to return to that state?
Jia: In the first episode, most of the dialogue is in the mother tongues of the character. Moving onto the 2014 part, when the son comes back from Shanghai and you notice that he no longer understands his mother’s dialect — he instead speaks the dialect of his stepmom — that also forces the son and mother to communicate in Mandarin, which both understand. Later, in 2025, the son has lost his Mandarin as well and now takes on English as the dominant language. So I do think that a general audience will probably pick up, very easily, the differences from the Chinese to the English language, but I do think the minute transformation and changes already happened from the first episode to the second — from the past to the present time because of the hometown dialect.
So I do think that mother tongue is an important way for two people — especially for loved ones — to really communicate with each other very deeply and meaningfully. For someone to lose the mother tongue is to somehow create that emotional distance with the loved ones that you’re communicating with, because not only do you not feel as intimate, but you probably have a hard time trying to describe with your language a language other than the mother tongue.
Zhao: For Thao, in 1999, she was still very young, and I wanted to portray her as someone who was very carefree — very easily excited — and, with that, I also intentionally raised the pitch and spoke with a much sharper tone. Not only orally, but physically, I would transform myself into someone who’s definitely a lot more energetic. A lot of vitality and energy that you could observe from her behavior could be sudden bursts of applause, and she’ll be jumping around. These are things in the character I try to embody not only orally, but physically.
The 2025 sequences are perhaps most clearly marked by the presence of a futuristic technology, including a tablet that syncs with Google Translate and, with the flick of a finger, eases communication between foreign languages. How did you create these, and who did you work with to make them seem as believable as possible?
Jia: When I was thinking about shooting the 2025 episode, I at one point thought of something very sci-fi-like. [Laughs] I even thought that maybe the son would be in love with an alien. But then I realized it would be too abrupt, going from the first two episodes, because it’s not that far away from the “present” time; it’s only eleven years away. So the car you buy today you can still drive in 2025. But, in terms of the telecommunication devices we’re using, it’s changing almost every single year! [Laughs] There’s always an update: iPhone 5, iPhone 6, iPhone6 Plus. And because I want to focus on one particular element — which is technology, and how it fundamentally transforms the way people love and feel — I didn’t do too much in terms of the rest of the upgrade, except for the telecommunication devices. I wanted them to somehow have this futuristic but, at the same time, realistic look to it, so I collaborated with a science company in France.
Mountains May Depart will enter a limited release on Friday, February 12.