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FILM REVIEW: “Mountains May Depart” and “A Guy from Fenyang”

By Erik McClanahan
July 21, 2016

In late 2012, I interviewed Brazilian director Walter Salles for the release of his film adaptation of “On The Road.” Salles, A gregarious and thoughtful conversationalist, mentioned near the end of our chat, that he loves and misses books that filmmakers write about other filmmakers, and that he planned to write one about Chinese director Jia Zhangke (“Still Life,” “A Touch Of Sin”). “For me,” he said, “he’s the most important filmmaker alive.” Only a few years later, Salles made good on that promise. Sort of.

While there’s no sign yet of a book, we do have “Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang,” a documentary portrait by Salles of the revered filmmaker, screening this weekend along with Jia’s latest film, “Mountains May Depart,” at The Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. For anyone who follows contemporary world cinema, or who appreciates entertaining, moving, and beautiful films, it’s the highlight of the weekend.

A scene from Jia Zhangke's "Mountain May Depart"

A scene from Jia Zhangke’s “Mountain May Depart”

“Mountains May Depart” is Jia’s most ambitious effort to date. Spanning three different time periods, and even veering into speculative science fiction in the final act, it’s a gorgeous, at times heartbreaking look at the ripple effects of choices made by characters in an era of progress and upheaval. “Mountains” feels like the period at the end of a long and winding sentence Jia’s been writing ever since his first feature, 1997’s “Xiao Wu.” His career-long concern over globalization and its effects on his homeland may sound didactic and boring, especially in these summer months. But in ‘Mountains’, like his other films, there’s a real sense of grand, adventurous storytelling at play. His films are challenging yet never intimidating. Watching them is like getting a good, long, warm hug from a friend who’s just given you some bad news.

In “A Guy From Fenyang,” Salles and his small crew follow Jia around his home city, visit locations from his films, and speak with his closest collaborators. It’s a surprisingly touching portrait of the director, and a highly insightful guide to his overall aesthetic. Calling it a mere DVD special feature would be far too reductive, though–it’s a proper film, with Salles’ clear admiration for the filmmaker coming through and proving that a book may not be necessary. Along with this Summer’s “De Palma,” filmmakers making movies about other filmmakers they admire is an exciting trend.

Jia’s previous film, the grim, angry and violent “A Touch Of Sin,” got a week-long release at Cinema 21 in 2013. Hardly anyone came to see it, which is a real shame. That’s the harsh reality often with foreign film releases. Other than that, most his films have been relegated to the festival circuit with nary a Portland theatrical release in sight. It’s not just Salles who celebrates hims one of the most talented auteurs working today, yet his work can be elusive for Americans used to finding movies at the click of a few buttons. Few of Jia’s films are available through streaming services, and some are out of print on disc. Thankfully, the Film Center is picking up the slack with this double feature.

“There’s another form of movement that is very descriptive of our time,” Salles added back in 2012. “Not generated by the desire of the characters but because they are obliged to move. And Jia captures that miraculously. You learn more about China by watching one of his films then by reading 10 different issues of the Economist.” Indeed, you’ll learn, but you also be moved.

“Mountains May Depart” screens at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium Friday and Saturday (tickets available here). “Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang” screens Sunday and Monday (tickets available here).

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