One of our favorite films of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, we said in our review, Though vastly more moderate than its predecessor, the ultra-violent A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart continues the director’s move away from the extremely measured, observational style that characterized much of his earlier work. Even as his narratives have become more charged, however, Jia’s thematic focus has remained constant and Mountains May Depart offers his latest reflection on the momentous societal changes that have swept over China as a result of its entry and ascension in the globalized world economy. If A Touch of Sin expressed Jia’s rage at the contemporary impact of capitalist progress on Chinese society, Mountains May Depart is his lament over the direction in which it is headed.”
While at the festival, we had the opportunity to sit down with leading actress Zhao Tao to discuss her work in a roundtable. We talked about playing the same character across three different time period, her long-standing collaboration with the director, and much more. Check out the conversation below, which includes some spoilers, and see another interview here.
Some call Mountains May Depart Mr. Jia’s love letter to you.
I don’t see it that way. Mountains May Depart has actually been on his list of films to make for over a decade. The project just never came to be. When he told me he was going to make this movie last year, he described to me in very simple terms that it’s a love story spanning 26 years. Which meant of course that I’d be playing someone from her twenties to her fifties. This prospect really excited me. As an actress I think it’s a great fortune to come upon a role who lives through such a long period of time. It allows such breadth in a performance.
Was it a bigger challenge for you to play the younger or the older version of the character?
I think the hardest part was to put all three stages of this character side by side in one movie. In the 1999 segment, I had to come across as this guileless young girl. When she’s in her forties, I must look like a mother who’s already been through a lot. And in her fifties, I wanted to make the audience see an aged but happy lady. The character must seem real at every stage. Only when you can buy into her, would you be able to buy into her story. That has been the biggest challenge for me.
How did you go about achieving this goal?
To achieve that goal, I concentrated on many little details. For the 1999 segment, I conjured up and maximized the innocence in me. Act a little spoiled, let out squeals, break into running abruptly… When Jinsheng’s car was trashed, my character’s only response was: “Everything all right?” Watching it, I had to laugh and think: “What a foolish girl.”
In the segment 2014, this woman has just had the most painful experiences of her life. She lost her father and had to make a decision on the custody of her child, which she eventually gave up. At this time of emotional hardship, we’re looking at an entirely different person than the one from her youth. My hope was that the audience would be struck by their first look at this familiar but also new character, that they could tell this is somebody who has lived. To this end, I chose big, long hair for her look and had no make-up on. I hoped that, with all the spots and wrinkles plainly exposed on the big screen, it would be a face that touches you, one that tells a story; that when you see a face like this, you could feel the existence of the character. I also lowered my voice during this part of the story.
To give you an example of how I perceived the inner landscape of Tao: the scene where Liand’s sick and I went to visit him featured the same location with the same people, only 15 years have passed. Both then middle-aged and perhaps no longer sharing any romantic feelings for each other, but their friendship and their common past still bound them. So when Liand said; “I hope this is not asking too much of you,” my character replied; “No, it’s the least I can do.” The scene really moved me as I was playing it. I think this is what life and humanity is about. So the presence of Liand brought further complications to Tao’s emotional state in 2014, which ultimately led her to forego child custody.
Or the scene where she was standing by the river with her son and telling him; “Mom can’t give you much. It’s better for you to stay with your father.” That was a difficult scene to shoot because we were near a bridge with a lot of traffic we had no control over and I had to be in that complicated state. After the first day of shooting, I was not satisfied with my performance. On the second day, I finally sank into that feeling. I realized that, even though the lines weren’t long or epic, those were the hardest words for a mother to say. At the same time, she didn’t want to show her child the pain she was feeling. She wanted to keep up this strong, independent appearance in front of him.
For the segment of 2025, I took off my contact lenses. In my fuzzy view of the world, the sense of distance felt right to me for playing somebody that age, where you still see things, but not that clearly anymore. I also shrunk my eyes a little to portray the light aversion, hunched my back and dragged my steps a bit. But above all, I wanted to portray an old lady who’s happy and content. Even though she’s had a lot of misfortune and is now living in solitude, I wanted her to have a smile on her face. So in this whole late segment of the film, we see a smiling old lady, walking her dog in the snow, who suddenly hears a familiar melody from the past and can’t help but break into a dance. For that dance scene, my instruction from the director was simply “Stop crying”. Actually he was already shedding tears behind the camera when we were shooting the happy dance scene for the 1999 segment. So he knew that, after playing this character through these stages of her life, I would definitely be touched by the final dance sequence. And indeed, for the first couple of days, the tears just kept pouring out of me in the middle of the scene despite all my attempts at restraint.
Through that final dance, as simply choreographed as it was, I hoped to convey all the joy, pain and loneliness of a woman’s life.
The movie seemed to really strike a chord with the Cannes audience.
On the night of the Cannes premiere, I watched the film on the big screen for the first time just like everybody else. I think the audience responded to it because this movie is about emotions that we’ve all experienced before or will experience at some point. It’s about something universal that we can all relate to.
You’ve worked with Mr. Jia Zhangke on many films by now. Was it any different this time around?
The biggest difference this time – which I really appreciated – was that he finally shot the movie by the script. It never used to be that way. Usually he would only give me an outline of the story or the character and we would start filming. On Still Life, for example, there was simply no time for screenwriting because houses were being torn down every day. So he would only tell me what my character’s name was, her age, what she did etc. We were literally fighting against time on that shoot.
This time around, he was able to shoot the film completely according to script. It was such good news to me, because it gave me plenty of time to prepare. I got to go to Fenyang, sit by the road and observe the people passing by. That I got to experience life in Fenyang was hugely important to my portrayal of this character. Also, I finally had time to discuss my character with the director face to face. It never happened on previous films because he was always too busy with other matters. This time we even had time for rehearsals! It was all just wonderful.
Has pop music, which is prominently featured in the film, informed you of your performance?
Not really. I grew up learning classical dance in a very conservative environment. We were hardly exposed to any popular entertainment at all. So I never had much impression of pop music. Not until I first became part of Mr. Jia’s team – back in 2000 for Platform – did I suddenly realize I’d never heard of all these songs. I’ve only started to learn more about pop music through his films since then.
Some critics have noted that the movie “derailed” in the third part. Did you feel that way while watching it?
I didn’t feel that way. I knew going in that the movie wasn’t evenly divided between its three parts, but watching it at the premiere, I didn’t even notice the disproportion. That detail just completely went past me. For me there was no “derailing” in the third act. What it did was allowing me to imagine how we’ll live 15 years from now.
There are elements of melodrama in the movie. How did you make sure the performance didn’t become melodramatic?
By believing in the feelings of the character, I think. In the first segment, the key to portraying the young Tao is the fact that at she believes in what she feels. There are no ulterior motives to her choices. Back then the living standard was completely different from what we’re used to today. Actually Liand and Jinsheng were equals in 1999. They couldn’t have known that in 15 years’ time, their circumstances would become so drastically different. Tao couldn’t have known that either. She was won over by Jinsheng because he was a proactive guy and cared for her well-being, helping her get the CD back in time, for example. I think all young girls would be touched by such gestures. So I believe in her feelings.
Do you see Mr. Jia in the characters of the movie? It’s conspicuously set in Fenyang again.
Not really. I understand why all his films are set in Fenyang. I also grew up in the Shanxi province. Our hometowns are about 1.5 hours apart by car. His description of Fenyang, the city, the people, the mentality, how it looks and sounds, all strikes me as authentic. He chooses Fenyang as background for his movies also because he has so many memories there.
Mountains May Depart premiered at Cannes and will be released in the United States by Kino Lorber. See our festival coverage below.