Jia Zhangke's new film, Mountains May Depart, opens to the strains of the Pet Shop Boys' 1993 cover of "Go West": it's New Year's Eve 1999, in a small coal mining town in China, and the clubs are filled with revellers looking to get down. "I chose this song because it imprinted on me in the late 1990s," says Jia in an interview ahead of the film's first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (it premiered earlier this year in Cannes). "At that time there were a lot of discos that sprung up in China, and at midnight, the DJs would all play 'Go West.' So the song gives me a connection to that time in my life."
It's also possible to see this soundtrack choice at shorthand for the director's themes. Set in three time periods ranging from 1999 to 2525—the latter year already immortalized in another cheesy pop hit—Mountains May Depart dramatizes China's steadily accelerating shift to late capitalism. Its main protagonist, Tao (Zhao Tao), makes the fateful choice as a young woman to marry an entrepreneur whose obsession with money is expressed in the name he gives their son. No sooner is the boy out of the womb than his father dubs him "Dollar."
"My inspiration for the film was to examine a series of social changes in China," says Jia, whose previous film, A Touch of Sin, was similarly comprised of a series of interconnected stories. "I think that there have been major changes in our lifestyle, and in our values. In our consumer culture, we have slipped into a state of mind that allows us to think that money is going to solve all of our problems."
Mountains May Depart isn't the first film Jia has made that criticizes Chinese society. in the 90s, he emerged as the outlaw hero of the country's film culture, producing a series of independently financed, street-level masterpieces—including the epic drama Platform (2000)—that were deemed un-releasable by the country's censors for a variety of reasons, not least of all their despairing imagery of social and economic inequality. Mountains May Depart hearkens back to this early work in more ways than one: the scenes set in 1999 include documentary footage shot by Jia at the time, which gives the evocation of the past a sense of handheld authenticity. (Each time frame has its own aspect ratio: by the time the film gets to 2525, the images loom huge in widescreen, perhaps suggesting a larger, more globalized worldview.)
Since 2004's The World—an allegory of globalization shot in the country's largest theme park—Jia has been working with state approval, but his work hasn't grown any less subversive. The bleak and graphically violent A Touch of Sin, which was inspired by classic martial arts films,so enraged certain parties that China's propaganda department instructed media not to write about it—a dictate complicated by the filmmaker's increasing visibility on the world stage.
"I think that I have freedom now, and that it's a complete artistic freedom, which I've earned myself" explains Jia. "It's a freedom which is external from the censorship boards. I think that the subject of freedom itself is still sensitive in China, and that's why it's important to talk about it." With this in mind, the use of "Go West" in Mountains May Depart is double-edged; the song expresses a yearning for escape, while also hinting that the literal and philosophical destination contains its own built-in trap. Not that Jia is willing to take this reading too far. "I didn't choose the song for the lyrics," he insists, laughing. "I chose it because of the rhythm."
Jia is also at TIFF this year to sit on the jury for the festival's inaugural Platform programme, which gathers together 12 films by comparatively unheralded directors (the winning filmmaker will receive $25,000). The idea of one of the world's biggest festivals naming their competition after one of Jia's films indicates just how long his shadow looms just two decades into his career. "Of course I'm honoured that TIFF named [the competition] after my film," he says. "I think that new international cinema offers the possibility for a new language, and for new art."
Follow Adam on Twitter.