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A Quick Take from Cannes: Zhao Tao on Mountains May Depart

RGB tiff image by MetisIP

By Amir Ganjavie.

Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart could be defined as a metaphorical representation of the status of romance in the age of consumerism. By focusing on three different time periods – 1999, 2014, and 2025 – the movie describes how emotions and feelings evolve over time and what could be the future of human interactions in advanced telecommunication.  It begs the question about what the meaning of life is; if not consumerism, then what is it? Although experimental in nature, it is a return back to the director’s meticulous observational style that defined his earlier work.

While at the festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with leading actress Zhao Tao. We talked about playing the same character across three different time periods and her long-standing collaboration with the director.

You played in Jia Zhangke’s other movies, but I realized that your performance in this one is very different from the rest. I could hardly remember so many energetic performances in your previous work with Zhangke, which could very well be seen in your body language in the film. Was the process of being directed in this film very different from Zhangke’s other movies?

The Mountains May Depart tells the story of a woman during twenty-six years of her life. It was very difficult to interpret her acting, but that big challenge actually seemed very exciting to me. For the first time, [Zhangke] follows the script very carefully, which has never happened [to me] before and is something that I really like this time.

Aside from this, a couple of other issues impacted my performance. First of all, playing the role of a young girl in Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000) and later on playing an immigrant, and all the emotions related to that, in Shun Li and the Poet (2011) prepared me for this role. They gave me the basic techniques to play the role of this mother. Secondly, I have to say that the city where Jia Zhangke and I come from is in the province of Shanxi, which is where the movie is set; we live only two hours apart. Thus, I was very credible in this role because I could blend into the environment, understand it, and very much play the character as it had to be. Despite this, in order to better understand local life and to know the people and the streets, I spent time watching what the normal people of the place do every day. This gave me a lot of time to prepare my character as well as to work with other actors and to develop our own characters.

You play your character at three different ages in the movie. What were the important markers for you to show youth, middle age, and late middle age?

For the young age, I had to show all the explosiveness that related to it, like a young girl whose concerns are not about the future but who instead just wants to dance and sing and enjoy life.

Later in the 2014 phase of the film, Tao is no longer young and I deliberately decided not to wear makeup but instead to show the wrinkles and the age that had appeared on her face. I wanted the audience to see all of this so that they could actually believe in the character and see the hardship that she went through, not only by losing everything through her divorce, but also leaving her child. At the same time, I wanted to show that, despite this, the character continued listening to very sad and deep music.

For the 2025 role, I basically took off my lenses to represent my character as an old woman and the way that such a character would see the world. I also deliberately pushed my back forward a little bit and cut my hair short. However, at the same time I believed that the character still wanted to be seen as a happy yet lonely woman in her old age. I was deeply involved with the character and for the last scene when she dances, the director told me not to cry because he knew that I would have. I cried so much because I was very much feeling like Tao and really became part of the role, so this dance was the expression of what my character lived through in her entire life, not only during her happiness but also through moments of the sorrow.

You are Jia Zhangke’s favorite actor, as well as his wife, and he is a director who understands female actors and women’s issues very well. Have you had any impact on his directorship or have you helped him during his script writing, especially in creating women’s characters and understanding their issues and problems?

Actually, we work very separately, and the script is entirely up to the director. He writes it, and I don’t take part in it. Only when he is almost at the end, when it’s in an emotional part at the climax of the story, will he talk to me about it. I do not really play a big role aside from that; it’s all up to him.

Does this mean that he is very strict in dealing with the characters? Does he let the actors improvise or make some suggestions about their roles?

Actually, he gives me the script and it’s up to me to create the character, so it’s actually very difficult and challenging for me. He only describes the story in a certain period of time and then all the emotions are up to me to create and to interpret the role to the best of my abilities.

Is it common in China for a woman to almost be forced to give up her child in the way that we see in the movie?

It might happen in China, but in the film it actually shows how strong that a mother’s love for her child can be. She wants her child to live a better life than hers but she does not have the means to send him to an international school or to a big city like Shanghai. In order to give her child a better future, she prefers for the father to take care of that, though this decision is wrong because we can see that in 2025 the child’s life has become completely empty and without roots; he has lost basically everything.

Shadi Javadi assisted with this interview.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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