Mountains May Depart is not the first film to completely lose the thread as it approaches the ending, of course. But it's extra-awfully disappointing that it does so, because before that happens, it puts up a really impressive case for being one of the very best movies released in the United States in 2016.

The eighth narrative feature directed by the great Jia Zhangke is something of a supercharged version of his pet theme: what it means to be Chinese in a globalising world where China is poised to become the next great power, but at the cost of becoming an uncomfortably Western version of itself. To get at that this time around, he's pulled in the episodic structure of his last film, 2013's A Touch of Sin, to look at the travails of a small cluster of people across 25 years of history, broken into three moments: 1999 (internal evidence later in the film suggests the first segment actually covers 1999 through 2007), 2014, and 2025. Throughout all three sequences, the film develops its message in a beautifully intricate mixture of historical analysis and character drama, blurring chronological distinctions in the depiction of people in "the past" trying to live in the future, as people in "the future" are constantly forced to reckon with their choices and actions in the past.

Mountains May Depart - the original title, I am given to understand, is closer to Mountain, River, Old Friend - touches on all of this material with great delicacy and extraordinary insight into its characters, at least in 1999 and 2014. The first story is a basic love triangle: Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) is an enthusiastic young woman employed as a shop clerk, eagerly preparing for the upcoming millennial celebrations, and enjoying her time with two of her closest childhood friends, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), an aspiring entrepreneur, and Liang Jangjung (Liang Jingdong), a coal miner, both of whom would very much like to move their relationships with Tao out of the realm of friendship. This is the most barbarically straightforward plot imaginable, but in the execution here it feels as keen and fresh as it must have when it was first told thousands of years ago. Partially this is simply because of the fullness of everything surrounding the central love story: the portrayal of China on the cusp of the millennium has the same giddy sense of possibility that the films Jia himself made around the same time showcased (some of the footage was, in fact, shot by Jia and cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai in 2001, on video - it has been blended into the film through the exigency of shooting new scenes on heavily outdated technology), now filtered through a slight haze of nostalgia, and one could just as easily admire Mountains May Depart as a remembrance of Chinese culture during a recent historical moment separated from the present by untold changes in the world as for anything to do with its character drama.

But the character drama is, nonetheless, quite splendid. Zhao's performance, slowly coloring in shades of heartbreak and dogged fortitude as it stretches across the decades, is an extraordinarily strong foundation for the rest of the movie to build itself upon, and her portrayal of Tao the high-spirited enthusiast, Tao the pensive romantic, Tao the desperate mother, grow so organically from each other that her shifts in mood end up providing the movie with much of its structure. Hell, she even makes Tao the somewhat-too-obvious surrogate for "The Contemporary Experience of China" (I mean, just look at the symbolically-laden men she's forced to choose between: the traditional worker who will obviously never amount to much, or the hungry capitalist who will only cause her suffering even as he helps her achieve things she could never otherwise have) feel both like a well-sketched icon in an editorial cartoon as well as a reasonable, sophisticated embodiment of cultural currents too big for any one human to experience.

As it uses Tao, and at times her conspicuous, heavy-feeling absence, to play around with ideas of what China is and has the potential to be at this critical moment in its history, Mountains May Depart doesn't forget to provide a full set of arcs for the two men, both of whom have their own set of tragedies and difficult questions, though I cannot say that either the roles as written nor as performed are as wholly rewarding as Tao is. Still, the profoundly generous humanism of Jia's earlier work is on full display in the way he makes certain to allow us to fully understand and appreciate the inner workings of all the major characters, even when in the case of Jinsheng, he gives us increasingly good reason to dislike him. And this is all while engaging in some showy but highly motivated formalism: each new sequence of the film takes place in a wider aspect ratio, with 1999 shot in the 1.33:1 of video (initially a practical matter, necessary to match the old footage), 2014 in 1.85:1, or standard widescreen, and 2025 in 2.37:1, anamorphic widescreen. The slow expansion of the palette is contrasted by the reduction in content, as the 1999 scenes are frequently a flurry of activity, the camera swerving around with intoxication to catch it all, while in 2025, there are many austere, half-empty frames, foregrounding the brittle emotions at play in its story. It's as obvious as the "love triangle where they're all symbols for sectors of Chinese society" bit, and just as successfully carried off with considerable insight and craft.

And so, after loving two-thirds (or a little more) of the movie with undying passion, from the richness of the characters all the way down to the shocking precision of where the film's title card unexpectly shows up, I am sorry to say that Mountains May Depart slams into a wall. Part of this is undoubtedly the arrogance of language on my part: much of the 2025 material is in English, centered on Dong Zijian's performance as the frustrated, emotionally yearning college student Daole, and he is terrible. The plot hinges, at a deep and thematically critical level, on Daole having become so comfortable with English that he has forgotten Mandarin, and by extension, his Chinese heritage - right at a time when China is about to replace the United States as the world's most powerful nation, no less - and this is really, incredibly hard to buy into when the actor's command of English is so shaky. Not to mention how clattering some of the sound lines in English, translated from the Chinese of Jia's original screenplay. This is, among other things, a reminder of the dangers of watching movies in a language you don't speak: for all I know, every last line delivery in the whole movie is just as terrible as Dong's, and I simply can't tell. But something about his physical stiffness tells me that's not the case.

Beyond that, the film suffers from having an almost equally trite plot as the 1999 material (the 2014 sequence, to its credit, is generally unexpected in how its story develops), involving the strife between distant fathers and needful sons, and the pain of a child who never properly knew his mother, but without the cutting wisdom of the 1999 sequence's sociology and character drama to help it through. And while I greatly admire that Jia's willingness to blow through his comfort zone - he is a master of rifling through the past, not predicting the future - there's no mistaking that the world of 2025 feels clumsy and half-formed compared to the laser-focused precision of 1999 and 2014; it's a botched marriage of contemporary technology and unimaginative but distracting extrapolations from contemporary technology, along with a curiously inconsistent attempt to chart out the evolution of America and China's relative power in the coming decade, which at times feels like China has already eclipsed its Western counterpart, and at times feels like the only difference between then and now is that the dollar is weaker. Nothing, beyond the central performance, is truly objectionable - it's a bit formless and wobbly, that's all - but it's galling how much it deflates the exemplary first two acts of what could have been a truly great film, and instead ends up a beautiful, intelligent misstep that Jia will hopefully learn much from on the way to reasserting his greatness.