Time and Money
An Interview with Jia Zhangke
by Paul Dallas

Modest and soft-spoken, Jia Zhangke might not seem like the major international auteur he has slowly but surely become. It is a measure of the director’s status that in 2015, the Toronto International Film Festival inaugurated a new prize “to champion director’s cinema” named in honor of his 2000 historical epic Platform. The director, who was a jury member, was also at the festival for the North American premiere of his latest film, Mountains May Depart. At the packed screening, he seemed both genuinely thankful for the enthusiasm and also anxious to get off the stage.

Attention is mixed blessing for Jia—something that’s both useful and dangerous. As the reigning chronicler of modern China’s maladies, he knows that balancing high visibility and a low profile is part of the unspoken deal he has with his country’s ever-watchful authorities. Maintaining that balance has allowed him to make films regularly, even as he tackles subjects that raise eyebrows. His 2013 film, the wuxia-inspired A Touch of Sin, applied blunt force to tell a series of violent tales of cruelty and retribution ripped from the country’s recent headlines. A thrilling and grim film—easily his angriest and most confrontational—it saw the director working at the top of his game

Mountains May Depart, his eleventh feature, finds Jia working in an entirely different register. Here, emotion trumps politics; social criticism is embedded within the film’s unabashedly romantic and character-driven portrait of a dysfunctional family. This could be interpreted as the director’s attempt to hew closer to the strictures of acceptability. But as with all of his films, it’s a highly idiosyncratic affair.

Set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, Mountains May Depart is an epic story of the power and limitations of maternal love. Unfolding in three parts and spanning 26 years, the film is a fascinating, if uneven, blend of melodrama, allegory, and elements of near-future sci-fi. It also serves as a star vehicle for the director’s regular muse and wife Tao Zhao. Her magnetic performance as Tao, the film’s ambitious and morally ambiguous protagonist is the film’s emotional anchor. The story begins in 1999 when she’s in her mid-twenties, caught in a romantic rivalry between the arrogant and ascendant Zhang and genteel coal miner Liang; leaps forward to 2014, after her dubious marriage to Zhang and the birth of their son, nicknamed Dollar; and ends up in 2025 in Australia, where Dollar, now a confused teenager living with his father, yearns for his absent mother.

Jia—who’s planning his first martial arts film this year, a period piece set in the final years of the Qing dynasty—sat down with me during the New York Film Festival to discuss Mountains May Depart. Wearing his trademark black suit and accompanied by a regal translator, he spoke about the intentions behind the film. A few feet away sat Tao Zhao, concentrating on her smart phone, her focus broken briefly to politely thank me for singling out her performance as one of the year’s best.

Reverse Shot: This film strikes me as one of your most personal. I wondered if you could speak about the origins of the project.

Jia Zhangke: This film has something to do with my mother. Before she retired, she worked as a cashier for a state-owned store. In 2006, my father passed away and she has been living alone in my hometown of Fenyang since then. Because I was making films, I rarely went home to visit. When I did visit, I would give her money, thinking that this would help her have a better life. But I realized that this didn’t make her happy at all. What she really wanted was to spend quality time together. This was a wake-up call for me. I began to realize that I was affected by consumerism and this idea that money can somehow solve everything. The other point of inspiration was simply my getting older and becoming aware of the passage of time. I saw this film as an opportunity to reexamine human emotions across time, and I reflected a lot on my own past and present loves. The experience offered me a new understanding. At the same time, I was also observing China’s rapid economic development and the way technology is reshaping our value system. This has a huge impact on how we feel and how we love.

RS: The film begins and ends in Fenyang. In between, we see all of the characters leave, undergo struggles, and return as very different people.

JZ: One of the major themes of the film—and something I think many people will be able to relate to—is this constant state of floating, drifting around. In China, it’s common for people to drift away from their hometown to a city in search of a better life. Sometimes this drifting carries them abroad. This is why I decided to use my own hometown as a starting point in the film. Not only is this where the story begins, but the town also comes to represent a more simple way of life. The film juxtaposes this with the technology-savvy urban lifestyle where development occurs relentlessly.

RS: The film is divided into three discrete sections. As we move from 1999 to 2014 and 2025, the image ratio widens in contrast to the character’s hopes and dreams. Can you talk about setting the film across the 26-year time span?

JZ: Time is a crucial element when talking about feelings and love. As time passes, relationships change, as does your understanding of your own past. When you’re young, love is often experienced as something very pure and sweet. But later in life, love can become deconstructed, sometimes to the point of turning into a kind of bitterness. In order to express this trajectory in a narrative and to portray these changes in my characters, I needed the film to travel in time. That is why I set the “past” section in 1999 and the “present” section in 2014. At first when I wrote the film, I had no intention of including a “future” section. It was not until I started developing the characters of Tao and Dollar in the “present day” section that I became curious about what was going to happen to them in the future. Dollar is such a passive character. So many decisions have already been made for him. Despite being very privileged, he doesn’t have much say in what happens to him, in terms of his parents’ divorce, his father getting custody, or his immigration to Australia later in the film. I can’t help but wonder what kind of future Dollar will have. Will he have the freedoms that his parents are trying to ensure, or will he have to confront obstacles? As Tao’s character gets older, I want to know whether she will be able to love again. This is why I added the third section to the film.

RS: The film seems to mix different genres. It has elements of romantic comedy, family melodrama, and even sci-fi aspects in the “future” section. Was this a conscious formal choice?

JZ: No, I didn’t intentionally try to somehow mix genres in this film. It’s true there are aspects of romantic comedy and sci-fi, but my goal was really to tell a story spanning 26 years. With these different stages in a person’s life, you see the progression from the innocence of youth, where love is romantic, to the challenges of adulthood, when things like illness and death come into play. I’m just trying to let the story flow very naturally. What might feel like different genres is really my way of representing this emotional journey organically. For me, 1999 was the moment when the Internet and cell phones became prevalent and really started to change how people were expressing themselves. Today, we can recognize how deeply they have affected human relationships and how these technologies control us in certain ways. I’m often wondering about the future of this and the kinds of problems this might cause. The most important thing for me is to observe, as objectively as I can, how these things evolve over a 26-year period.

RS: Tao’s performance is astonishing and serves as the film’s emotional center of gravity. Her character, however, is ambiguous and often questionable. For instance, she chooses rich, arrogant Zhang over poor, sincere Liangzi. We know things will not turn out well and she winds up alone and embittered. Yet we empathize with her.

JZ: When I was first designing the plotlines and assembling the screenplay, I had two distinct phases in mind with this character. The first is a youthful person in her mid-twenties. The second is the same person in early middle age, when she clearly bares the traces of time. In order to take the audience from the first to the second phase, it was important that Tao’s character not be a goddess or a saint, but someone who has faults and weakness and makes bad decisions. I wanted to create a complex character. She is informed by life experience and the society around her. I think that she is an attractive character because she’s relatable. We all make choices in life and we all pay for the decisions we make.

RS: We meet up with Liangzi’s character after a long break and find that he’s terminally ill because of his work in the coal mine. It’s clear that he represents the real human cost of China’s rapid development.

JZ: If you compare life in China as represented in Mountains May Depart with Platform, which was set in the late seventies and early eighties, one could say that we are relatively better off economically. At the same time, there is still a huge segment of the population that has not benefited from this development and progress. Their reality is still poverty. They will probably never see any benefits from this theory of “trickle-down” economics. In order for me to accurately portray reality, I must show this condition. As a filmmaker, it’s not something I can afford to neglect. I don’t want to simplify these issues, either. But it’s not just happening in China; it’s also a global issue. Poverty is pervasive.

RS: As a family drama, Mountains May Depart feels both intimate and epic in scope. Was it your intention to show how the pressures of development in China affect familial relationships?

JZ: On one level, the transformation occurring in China is unique. The pace of the development is incredibly fast. There’s been no time for people to ease into the social and technological changes. This has created a situation where a large part of the population is simply not prepared for the sudden leap. I think you can see the conflict in the ways people choose to deal with their emotions—their inability to express them, in some cases. At the same time, this is a global issue and we witness it elsewhere in the world. I don’t mean to imply I’m only interested in analyzing China’s social and economic context. I see it as part of the backdrop. It is discussed in this film as the natural byproduct of focusing on these individual characters and trying to understand their interpersonal relationships over a period of time.

RS: The film opens at a disco club with people dancing to the Pet Shop Boy’s song “Go West,” and the film closes with Tao singing and dancing alone to the song. Can you talk about the significance of the song for you?

JZ: It was a song that defined the decade for me. It was an anthem in the early 1990s at a time when disco clubs were popular. When that song came on, we would immediately grab hands and dance in synchronizations together. For me, it captures a sense of optimism that I associate with my youth and with that time, and it talked about a sense of freedom. I enjoyed it very much.

RS: Could you talk about what the film’s title means for you?

JZ: The literal English translation of the Chinese title would be “Mountains, Rivers, and Old Friends.” For many Chinese speakers, this is a poetic phrase with a sentimental resonance. The key word is the third character 故 (gu/gù), which means “old.” In order for someone to become an “old friend,” it takes a long time. Time is obviously a crucial element of the film. The English title functions similarly and derives from the sentiment, “Mountains may depart, but our love will never change.”