Cannes films ponder China's new consumers and a 'bromance' in the Alps

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

“Mountains May Depart” confirms Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s status as poet of the sublime and the grotesque, while Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel excel in Paolo Sorrentino’s uneven “Youth”.


Cannes has entered the final stretch and Palme d’Or angst is palpable in the festival’s increasingly musty press screenings, jam-packed with underslept, over-caffeinated film buffs. It is a world far removed from the red carpet and its bandwagon of scandals about Sophie Marceau’s knickers and women turned away for wearing flat shoes – a world with no heels, but with its own thrills and codes. This is an arena for pretentious chatter, snorefests, and battles between cheerers, booers and hissers. Most of all, it is a place to exult in the miracle of cinema. Tuesday’s late-night screening of Jia Zhangke’s competition entry was one such occasion.

“Mountains May Depart” is split into three parts. It starts with a love triangle in northern China in 1999, picks up the same characters in 2014, and then fast-tracks to Australia in 2025. The opening sequence, featuring a bunch of people dancing to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”, deliciously out of step, is a moment of sheer exhilaration. China is doing just that, “going West”, with the confidence of an emerging power that has just recovered Hong Kong and Macao, and looks at the new millennium with renewed optimism. It is embracing consumer society, mobile phones and German cars, spawning a new generation of capitalist entrepreneurs who are about to steamroll over society’s losers.


Liang (Liang Jindong) is a coal miner and one such loser. He’s in love with Tao (the extraordinary Zhao Tao), who is also courted by the greedy nouveau riche Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). Inevitably, Jinsheng buys the coal mine, pushes Liang out of the picture, and marries Tao. They have a child, whom he insists on calling “Dollar”. Their wedding portrait, taken in ludicrous Western outfits with a picture of Sydney’s Opera House in the background, is a sign of things to come. In the film’s final act, Dollar lives in Australia. A dislocated product of China’s diaspora, he’s forgotten both his mother and his mother tongue (though, curiously, he speaks English with a heavy Chinese accent). This part is beset by some woeful acting (the cast are clearly uncomfortable speaking English), but its narrative energy is undiminished, delivering a poignant reflection on globalisation and the challenges faced by China’s rapidly expanding diaspora.

“Mountains May Depart” is an ambitious and hugely rewarding exercise in creative filming and storytelling. Its flexible format evolves over time, shifting from a boxy frame to an ever-wider screen. It confirms Zhangke’s exceptional eye for compositions and his ability to portray the effects of China’s latest great leap forward and its widening wealth gap, a theme he mined with devastating impact in his previous film, “A Touch of Sin”. While the latter movie bristled with violent anger, the mood here is more melancholic, carried by a superb Zhao Tao. Zhangke’s muse and wife gives a mesmerising performance as Tao, a smiling, bubbly young lady who is gradually worn down by breakup and bereavement. Her melancholic exploration of loss and regret is the most emotionally stirring act I have seen at Cannes so far.

Caine and Keitel bond in tender, unequal Sorrentino

Just a few hours later, I found myself struggling to get emotionally involved with Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth”, the second English-language feature by the Italian director of the Oscar-winning “La Grande Bellezza” (The Great Beauty). True to form, Sorrentino’s movie is stylish, mannered, backed by gorgeous music, and replete with moments of sheer beauty. It features a star-studded cast and an array of quirky characters, ranging from a humongous Maradona (with a huge tattoo of Karl Marx on his back and an even larger pot belly) to an improbable Adolf Hitler. Yet, its meditation on age, memory and men’s longing for youthful female beauty feels oddly tired and dull.

Harvey Keitel (left) and Michael Caine at the photocall for Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth".
Harvey Keitel (left) and Michael Caine at the photocall for Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth".

Tenderness has been a common thread in the festival’s plentiful Italian entries, particularly Nanni Moretti’s competition entry “Mia Madre”. Sorrentino follows suit, tempering the cynicism of his previous work with a sweet and often very funny story centred on a bromance between retired composer Fred Bollinger (Michael Caine) and ageing movie director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). They find a third companion in Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), whose impressive facial hair pursues the festival’s love affair with moustaches (see Colin Farrell in “The Lobster” and Vincent Lindon in “The Measure of a Man”). There is another parallel with “The Lobster” in the choice of an isolated, upscale spa hotel as the film’s setting – though this one is in the Swiss Alps.

The Anglo-American duo of Fred and Mick are a treat to watch, and Caine’s soulful performance is an eloquent dismissal of the many critics who'd argued that the role was better suited to Sorrentino habitué Toni Servillo. There is also a brief but intense appearance by Jane Fonda as a heartless Hollywood diva who abandons her long-time friend and patron Mick in order to follow the lure of lucrative TV drama. Regrettably, Sorrentino once again cannot seem to bring his film to an end, and his detractors will find plenty of ammunition in the arty succession of chiaroscuros that punctuate the movie. Two years ago, the Italian director arrived at Cannes with Palme d'Or-worthy material and left empty-handed. His latest effort drew hearty applause and a smattering of boos. Its fate in an increasingly unpredictable competition is anyone’s guess.


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