It’s 1999 in the riverside town of Fenyang, China. Upbeat twenty-something Tao (Zhao Tao) is caught in the middle of a love triangle. She is close with the introverted coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) but also has feelings for cocksure businessman Zhang (Zhang Yi). The repercussions of these romances return in 2014, when the divorced Tao comes home to Fenyang to mourn her father. There, she also tries to re-connect with a son she hardly knows.

Divided into three acts and filmed in three aspect ratios, the newest film from Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin) manages to be ambitious in scope yet intimately poignant. The filmmaker has much to say about class difference, environmental and economic collapse, and the lull in human connection due to technology. Still, these big themes are minor touchstones that inform the stories and rarely intrude on the events in Tao’s life. Zhangke also craftily uses two songs—“Go West,” by the Pet Shop Boys, and a Cantonese ballad by Sally Yeh—as motifs to tie the chapters together.

Zhangke is also a master at staging insightful character-based moments. A pivotal scene at an electronics store in the 1999 section finds Tao’s two suitors mostly mute, struggling to find the right words to say. Nevertheless, the actors convey a world of knowledge about their characters with subtle glances. (A helpful aid to this constricted love triangle is the boxy Academy ratio in the first act, which tightens the action in the frame.) Still, Mountains May Depart would seem much more weightless without Tao. Her searching, sometimes shattered face speaks volumes. It is remarkable to see the actor’s range, moving from beamy energy in 1999 to chilly silence in 2014.

However, the third act—set in Australia circa 2025—is a sore weak spot, capturing little of the emotional power of the earlier chapters. (Coincidentally, Tao is only in it for a brief section.) A forced relationship between Tao’s son, apathetic college student Dollar (Dong Zijian), and his Chinese professor (Sylvia Chang) doesn’t work. Much of the dialogue is in English, a first for the director, but little of it rings true to the way people speak. Clumsy exposition about how the world has changed in the near future only makes the section even sillier, especially after two elegant, enthralling acts.