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Interview: Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao on MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

A personal favourite from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is finally being released theatrically in North America. The film is anchored by a masterful performance from Zhao Tao, who stars as Tao in three different stages of her life. While exploring the relationships of its protagonist, the film also continues to expand on Jia’s fascination with American influence on the Chinese economy and the hopes and dreams of the citizens of Mainland China. We spoke to director Jia and star Zhao Tao (separately) earlier in September in advance of the film’s TIFF premiere.

Jia Zhangke

Scene Creek: Where did the idea for Mountains May Depart come from?

Jia Zhangke: The inspiration came from a pair of keys. I used to live in Bejing and my mom lived in Shanxi and we were very far apart. One time when I went to visit her she took a pair of keys and said, “Here, you should take these. You don’t have a pair of keys.” Suddenly I felt this overwhelming sadness come over me because I didn’t even have a key to the house I grew up in. So it started from there. I wanted to make a film about feelings.

SC: You’ve made your past few films starring you wife Zhao Tao. How do you collaborate with her when making these films?

JZ: I will tell her my ideas for every screenplay when I start writing them, but she doesn’t know the details. It is only after I’ve finished the script that I start thinking about who should play these roles. In this film i really decided it had to be her in the lead. She has a very unique way of working with scripts. She asks me many questions. She has a very interesting part to her process which is that in each scene she always asks me what time of the day is the scene happening. At first I didn’t really understand this, then I realized that it is because she is preparing her body condition for each scene. We are different from morning to the afternoon to night. With this film we had an argument about the scene when Tao’s father passes away in the small villiage and she has to go to the hospital to see his body. I considered this from a male perspective and I thought that she should act in a way that would remain pragmatic and calm because she had to deal with all of the afterthoughts. She did it once and said that it didn’t feel right. She said that a Chinese woman, under these circumstances, will almost always cry. She said that maybe I was letting my aesthethics eclipse something of a real emotion in this scene. That way we decided to stop filming and eventually I started thinking that she could be right. The next day we resumed shooting that same scene and I really feel that she has brought forth a very realistic and accurate portrait of a Chinese woman in this grieving process.

SC: Could you talk about the dance scenes that bookmark the film? You use the song “Go West” by Pet Shop Boys in both scenes, but they each mean two very different things.

JZ: When I was writing the script and I decided to start the film in 1999, I wanted to portray a certain feeling. I thought that in order to understand our feelings we must also consider the passage of time and the effects that time has. That was a time of my youth and when racked my memory to think about what represents that time for me, in 1999 there were a lot of discos that sprung up in China and “Go West” was a very popular song. A lot of the youth of that generation would go to these discos. Every time that people heard this song they would band together and form a train and dance. The song is really connected to the memory of my youth. At the end of the script I originally envisioned a day that was snowing and Tao is coming home from getting groceries. She hears someone call her and she turns around and doesn’t see anybody. Then I thought that perhaps she could dance, because even though she’s ended up as a very lonely woman, she still has to live on like all of us do. In her heart there is still a vitality and I wanted to draw that out.

SC: Your films are grounded on the globalization of western culture in China. Is this something that you are consciously choosing to work into your screenplays or does it just find its way in?

JZ: This is just an objective fact in China, it’s always present. When I watch TV or read the newspaper I often wonder to myself, “Why does everyone always want to talk about the US?” Some people curse the US, some people are in amazement by the US. It’s always a conversation around the U.S., it’s very perplexing to me.

SC: Why set the final chapter in Australia?

JZ: I actually had thought about making that last part in Toronto, because there are lots of Chinese people here. There’s a huge immigrant culture, and also there’s a very rich and mature film culture in terms of production and exhibition. Then I considered things from Dollar’s father’s perspective. I guess what is implicit in the script is that he leaves the country in 2014, during a time when there is a lot of corruption in China. It’s inferred that he is fleeing the country, not as a normal immigrant but as someone who is hiding from some legal problems. I thought that he should be moving to somewhere more remote than Toronto, somewhere with less Chinese people. I chose Australia because it is in the Southern Hemisphere and although geographically it is not so far from China, mentally it is further away. It feels further away because everything is inverted in terms of the seasons and the days.

 

Zhao Tao

SC: You play Tao throughout three different ages, through three different stages of her life. How did you approach the character differently at each point in her life?

Zhao Tao: The beginnings of the script existed about ten years ago, but that was a rough plan and the details were not yet fleshed out. When we finally began principal photography I realized suddenly that this to be a twenty-six year long love story between two people. So I think this is a very rare role for an actress, because it poses a great challenge, to portray the passage of time in this kind of relationship and I was very excited for the challenge. The biggest challenge is how to portray these three different parts of someones life – this passage of time – in an honest way, in a convincing way, so that the audience can see Tao as a twenty-year-old and trust that she possesses the innocence of that age. Then at forty and at fifty and feel that she has honestly gone through these life experieces and posses the gravity of that passage of time. In the Tao that you see in 1999, I wanted to portray a youthfulness and a levity and joy, an innocence. I feel that a girl in her twenties can jump up at any time. I purposely made her voice very high because I think that young girls like to speak in that way. I wanted to use my body and everything inside of me that was simple and happy. I wanted to portray this youth. This is a youth who is trusting of everything that is presented in front of her, she is very naive and frankly, a little dumb. The Tao of 2014 was the most difficult to portray. I think middle age is the most complex and difficult passage of someone’s life. Below you you have young people, above you you have old people. Tao at this point is a single mother. She has not seen her son in fifteen-years and is taking care of an aging father. At this point she has gone through a lot and it is the most complex moment of her life. In one shot her name is called and she turns around to face the camera. In that moment I wanted to portray all the complexities of her past experiences over the last fifteen years. I wanted that one look to convey the honesty of all of that collected experience over those years. To convey the look of Tao at this age I purposely chose a very awkward, long, permed hair. A lot of Chinese ladies who are that age have that hair. I also chose to wear no makeup because I think that a woman who has been very unlucky in her life has no habit to make herself up or beautify herself for the world. She simply doesn’t care about that. I wanted all the imperfections in my face to be magnified to convey this. I think the most important aspect – the biggest difference between the Tao in her twenties and the Tao in her forties – is that she has acquired a certain gravitas. To convey this I made the character very still – she didn’t move very much – and I lowered her voice. The most important relationship in Tao’s life at this age is that with her father. The thing that Jia always told me was to stop crying. I couldn’t stop crying. I listened to a lot of sad songs. I gathered all these sad feelings so that they would explode right away on set. The Tao of 2025 – at this point she is fifty something years old – at this age I wanted to portray her as being someone who always smiles. Although she’s had an immense amount of life experience and some very tragic ones, I wanted to portray her as facing all these new experiences with a slight smile. In terms of her look, I chose a short hairstyle – very simple – with two bobby pins behind her ears. I think this image immediately conveys the image of an old lady from Shanxi. As to her body language, she has an arched back. I also took out my contact lenses so that the world would present itself in a blurry way. I wanted to see in the way that an old lady would. The most important aspect of this character comes from the design of the script and the design of the film structurally. This is because it’s segmented in three parts, and therefore the narrative is very elliptical. As an actress I needed to fill in the blanks of what happened between the three stories. With my imagination I filled in the blanks, but also imagined the Tao from birth, to her growth, to her dating life, marriage, and finally her aging to bring forth a full image of this character. The Tao on set at one of those three parts is not three different characters, but one character that is fully fleshed out.

SC: Could you talk about the dance scenes? How did you craft that?

ZT: The song was one of Jia’s favourite songs. He would always go out dancing to this song when he was younger. The choreography was created by dance students. The first three dancers that you see in the front row are my students, and the other people behind them are my students’ students. They’re the ones who designed this dance. When we were on set – because it had been so long since we were all dancing in this very happy way together – it felt so joyful. When we stopped and we looked at the director and the assistant director they were crying. For the dance at the end, when we were filming Jia had to keep telling me to stop crying. My feelings inside had changed so much since the beginning of the film. I kept feeling like the entire filming process was a series of withholding emotions. By the end there have been so much pent up emotions and the dance is completely characterized in a different way. I also think that when somebody listens to the songs of their youth after they have grown, instead of feeling pure joy the feelings become more complicated and overwhelming.

Mountains May Depart is now playing.

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.