Chinese master Jia Zhangke (24 City, A Touch of Sin) again explores the state of contemporary China with Mountains May Depart, a moving melodrama about the tumultuous effects of the country’s capitalist progress on its (and its citizens’) ties to history. The trifurcated narrative’s sequences are delineated by expanding cinematographic framing, the first shot in 4:3, the second in 1.85:1, the last in 2.40:1. The technique offers ironic commentary on the characters’ increasingly limited, constricting circumstances.
Jia initially charts the love triangle between the young singing and dancing Tao (Zhao Tao) and her two suitors, miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) and ambitious businessman Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). That threesome is fractured by Tao’s decision to turn her back on her friendship with Liangzi for marriage with Jinsheng. Happiness, however, is not to be for any of them, as Tao is soon divorced from her husband and separated from her young son Dollar, while Liangzi finds himself so mortally ill from his old-world profession that his wife must, upon their return to his hometown, beg Tao for financial assistance.
Jia commences his tale in 1999 on the eve of the millennium, a period of burgeoning optimism about the future. By 2014 such hopefulness has given way to the harsh realization that Tao’s faith in Jinsheng — and, by extension, her trust in China’s emergence as a financial powerhouse driven by greed and materialism — was misplaced. If Mountains May Depart‘s first two segments concern people being left behind in a rapacious new economic environment, its third sequence, set in Australia, suggests the crushing alienation wreaked by China’s internationalization. It concerns Dollar’s contentious relationship with his on-the-skids father, his pining for his long-unseen mother, and his budding, quasi-oedipal romance with a teacher (Sylvia Chang).
Wielding long takes that maintain a piercing focus on the misery of its characters, and putting escalating narrative emphasis on the role that technology (and language) plays in fostering sociocultural generational rifts, Jia’s expertly composed and -dramatized film — opening and closing with alternately hopeful and melancholy dance sequences — summons up the way that China, and indeed our global society, sacrifices its vital bonds with tradition and family by destroying the irreplaceable past in order to build the future.
Tensions of a far different sort take center stage in Carol, Todd Haynes’s immaculate-to-a-fault adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical 1952 novel The Price of Salt (originally published under a pseudonym) about a young department store clerk and aspiring photographer named Therese (Rooney Mara) who, in 1950s New York City, falls for an older woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett) embroiled in a divorce from, and custody battle with, her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Beginning with an introductory tea date between Carol and Therese marked by two subtly deviating hand-on-shoulder touches — one with Mara facing the camera, the other with her back to it — Haynes’s direction has never been more assured, defined by silken camerawork and expert framing that conveys his characters’ loneliness and the shifting emotional dynamics between them.
But after the umpteenth composition in which the protagonists are shunted off to the screen’s corner, spied through a constricting doorway, or depicted behind a gauzy and/or rainy veneer, Carol begins to border on affectation. That’s also true of Blanchett’s portrayal of the title character, a regal-looking upper-crust wife whose past lesbian dalliances (especially with her friend Abby, played by Sarah Paulson) have destroyed her relationship with her spouse. Blanchett doesn’t miss an opportunity to movie-star pose, and while such posturing is partly an expression of how the smitten Therese sees Carol, it leaves the actress’s performance feeling at once larger than life and slightly overly mannered. Such an impression is all the more pronounced when contrasted with the far more reserved, interior turn by Mara, who persuasively embodies Therese as a young girl strong enough to take what she wants and yet still more than a little shaken by the unexpected desires consuming her.
As the confident-bordering-on-reckless Carol woos Therese, eventually convincing her to embark on a road trip that allows them to explore their feelings while also fleeing their unhappy lives, Carol offers a mature portrait of love struggling to materialize, and survive, in a disapproving society. Its story is ultimately too familiar and chilly to truly hit the melodramatic peaks of Haynes’s Far From Heaven, but it nonetheless boasts a commendable understanding of the complexities of human desire. And especially in the case of Chandler’s Harge, a cuckolded man whose motivations are cast not as intolerantly villainous but, rather, as the natural outgrowth of his messy circumstances and era-specific conditioning, the film refreshingly refuses to make its characters one-note archetypes, opting instead to imagine them as fully realized — contradictory, flawed, fallible, empathetic — human beings.