Director Jia Zhangke on technology, relationships, and Pet Shop Boys

Director Jia Zhangke on technology, relationships, and Pet Shop Boys

A small man, unassuming and often rumpled, writer-director Jia Zhangke doesn’t look like someone who’s out to shake up much of anything, let alone a country’s view of itself and its place in the world. But since the start of the century, Jia has emerged as the most internationally prominent and celebrated figure of the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers. At once sensitive and patient to the specifically local and generational, and concerned with larger questions of what it means to live in a globalized world, Jia’s movies are some of the medium’s most striking and complex portrayals of 21st century life, in China or anywhere.

His latest, Mountains May Depart, is one of his most ambitious projects. Like his last feature, A Touch Of Sin, one of The A.V. Club’s favorite movies of the decade so far, Mountains May Depart is separated into episodes, spanning from the recent past to the near future, and focused on everywoman Tao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife) and, later, on her Westernized son, Dollar. Jia’s films, which often blend documentary with fiction and extreme subtlety with satire, are at their most potent when they’re torn between opposite poles, and his newest is no exception.

The A.V. Club sat down with the filmmaker in a hotel restaurant at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. He spoke through an interpreter.

The A.V. Club: The last section of Mountains May Depart is set in 2025. Is it what you imagine our future to be, or is it specifically the future of these characters?

Jia Zhangke: I think that the future in the film doesn’t just belong to these characters. The loneliness in the last part of the film is very universal. For instance, the character of Dollar, the son, faces a lot of difficulties. Can he surpass his given conditions, intrinsic to his environment? Can he continue loving the woman that he loves? The challenges that he faces are ones of freedom—the pursuit of true freedom for oneself. The character of Tao is in her 50s by then, and I wondered if she could still draw out a vitality within herself and continue living. The loneliness that she possesses at the end of the film and all of these issues that she’s facing are ones that we all will find ourselves facing at some point. I don’t think that a lot of people truly face such a severe language problem [as Dollar]. Not everybody will lose their mother tongue. But we all experience this sense of drifting, no matter where we are. This sense of loneliness and being itinerant in the world.

AVC: Generations figure a lot in your early films; Platform and Unknown Pleasures come to mind. Is the future section a “speculative” generational portrait—about how you imagine the next generation will relate to today?

JZ: The difference that I’m trying to convey is that, in the past—the world of Platform—the previous generation would conflict with the new generation, but when they would argue and fight with each other, it was still a way of communicating with one another, and they used the same language. But in this film, Dollar can’t even talk to his father; he has to use Google Translate. In my early films, the characters lived in a world that was pre-internet, and although they have relationships that conflict and rupture, they’re still people who try to communicate with each other. I think the new technologies have become pervasive in our society, such as cellphones and the internet, and they’ve insidiously affected our personal sense of space and belonging. I think previously, when fathers and sons argued with each other, they would still face each other and face each other’s feelings, but now, the relationships between people has become much more abstracted. I think, actually, in China, the gulf that exists between the pre- and post-internet generations is more vast.

AVC: Do you worry about the loss of language? Because the Chinese film industry is becoming wealthier and wealthier, and there’s more of an incentive to homogenize, and that includes making movies in Mandarin.

JZ: This is a worry of mine, because language is so specific to art, all the way to the past in China. Previously, people were not allowed to include various regional dialects in their films, but in every film that I’ve made, I’ve maintained the regional dialects of the characters because I wanted to make films that were locally specific. I think this issue also stems from the marketability of films, and the overall market, because as soon as there’s a dialect that’s not Mandarin, there have to be subtitles, and people worry about the distribution of the film. The same situation exists in Hong Kong filmmaking today. There are a lot of colloquialisms in the Cantonese language that can never be represented aptly in Mandarin.

AVC: It seems like language is what roots the characters’ perspective in the past, and technology is what roots them in the present. In the first section of the film, you make striking use of analog video. Is that equivalent to the way the internet is used later on? Or is it meant as a contrast?

JZ: The first part of the film is deeply ingrained in a historical specificity, because in 1999, I was shooting a lot of documentary footage with my first video camera. The 4x3 aspect ratio is from that footage. I wanted to keep this historical specificity, and use it as the frame. At the same time, it’s set in a hometown, and the way people interface with their hometown is very interconnected with the landscape, and the landscape becomes inextricable from the self and the body. In the last part, conversely, even though the characters have migrated [to Australia] and lived there a long time, they still feel like they’re passing through. So in that episode, I added more digital aspects in the mise-en-scène, including the music that they listen to.

In the beginning, while I was writing, I thought that maybe we should include more sci-fi elements in the future episode, but in the end I only decided to portray it through the transportation methods, because in China, cars and highways and trains and the internet—it all came into pervasiveness at around the same time in the countryside, and they all very quickly began to affect our inner feelings about ourselves. Because in ancient Chinese culture, yearning and missing somebody has always been a very important aspect of storytelling, but also of being and of relationships between two people. It was really difficult to communicate if you were even just a ways away from somebody, so this idea of yearning became a very important subject in Chinese culture.

But now, with all our new technologies, I feel like these feelings have really been dampened. Even if you are thousands of kilometers from somebody, you can still video chat with them on your cellphone. Even though we can see each other more on the internet, maybe our hearts becomes more distant.

AVC: If that sense of yearning is gone, is there a yearning for something else that replaces it?

JZ: Of course there is still this sense of yearning between two people, but I think it’s lessened to a considerable degree. Our imagination isn’t as activated by the idea of missing somebody. Not like it used to be.

AVC: Would you ever consider making a film that’s set in an era with more of that yearning? A period piece set way back when?

JZ: Actually, my next film is set over a hundred years ago, around the end of the Qing dynasty. It’s going to be a wuxia film. I think what I really want to explore is the sense of space that these people had. I think that their sense of space, time, the passing of each day—it must have been very, very different from how we feel today. Because if you look at ancient Chinese culture, and depictions of it, the relationship between people and nature was very different. It almost felt as though feelings were always attached to a certain landscape. Two years ago, I went to Cannes with my mom. It was her first time in Europe, and I found—to my surprise—that she was very interested in the plants that she found there. Very sensitive to them. Then I realized that her generation is already a generation with a very different conception of their relationship to nature.

AVC: Each section of Mountains May Depart is shorter than the last one. In 1999, there’s a lot of build-up, but by 2025, things are happening very quickly. Is that because the first one has to set up so much about the characters, or were you consciously trying to vary the relationship to time?

JZ: We needed time for the narrative to unfold and for all of the characters to be introduced, but more importantly, in the 1999 section, I wanted to convey a more complete sense of space with these long takes. For instance, in the scene in the electronics shop with the three main characters, I wanted to shoot that entire scene only with long takes, to represent a complete sense of the space and how it related to the feelings between these people.

AVC: Did you work on the three sections one at a time? And in what order?

JZ: We shot 1999 first. That episode is set in winter for two reasons: First, it’s Chinese New Year around that time, and second, I wanted to show a time when the air was still very clear in China. This presented a challenge, so we shot that first, because we knew that we’d be waiting a lot. Because of the smog in China, we could really only shoot for two or three days a week. The second thing we shot was 2025, the Australian section; the challenge there was that it was the first time I’d ever shot overseas. And we did the [section set in 2014] last, because the preparations were relatively simple compared to the other two. In terms of location, landscape, and general mise-en-scène and costuming, it was easy. The first part was actually the most difficult to shoot, because, even though it’s set just a little over 15 years ago, I found that everything had disappeared, and we had to remake it from scratch.

AVC: Earlier, you mentioned that you used analog video in the 1999 section because it was personally specific to what you were doing in 1999. Is that where the use of Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” in the film comes from? It seems very personal.

JZ: The choice of that song comes from my memories of being young, people of my generation being young in 1999. Around that time there were a lot of dance clubs that sprang up in China, and we went dancing a lot, and “Go West” was a very popular song during that time. Whenever it hit midnight, the DJ would play this song and we would start dancing. So when I try to evoke memories of my past, and what I felt like in my body and my mind during that time, it’s interconnected with this song. So it’s not only a personal history that I’m trying to evoke, but a collective history for that generation.