When Jia Zhang-ke begins his latest state-of-China epic with a cannon-blast of Pet Shop Boys'"Go West", one sits up and takes notice.
Jia shows us a China whose citizens just want to Go West – if not geographically then cognitively. It becomes the movie's marching song, keeping time with its characters' quest for self-determination and social advancement.
For the most part, it centres on a woman called Shen Tao, who lives in the mining town of Fenyang. She's a dance teacher in her early 20s, and is leading an aerobics class in a slightly tatty studio, smiling and bouncing in the moment, with little inkling where the next quarter-century will lead.
Zhao gives a performance of extraordinary detail and depth of feeling in all three time periods: she's ravishing and butterfly-bright as a young woman, and tight with anxieties as a worried mother a decade and a half later, and returns for the bittersweet and beautiful finale after spending a regrettably large part of the film's third section offscreen.
In 1999, she's being courted by two men: Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), an honest, working-class chap whose ambitions don't run much further than providing for himself and whomever he may end up marrying, and Zhang (Zhang Yi), a petit-bourgeois, slick-haired socialite who's just invested in a local coal mine and has big plans for the future.
The choice facing Tao is the same one facing the country at large: settle or trade up? Of course she plumps for the latter, although her flirtations with each makes this the film's most satisfying section.
It may only be set a decade and a half ago, but the intense stylishness of Jia's images makes it glamorously remote, reinforcing the idea that our steps through the past can't be retraced.
Dollar embarks on a vaguely oedipal affair with his teacher in a subconscious quest to recreate his failed relationship with his mother, and the film's opening song now rings with sadness.
Mountains May Depart offers a more ambitious and messier treatment of those themes – but its generation-spanning story has serious power, and, in its masterful opening chapter and final sequence, brushes against greatness.