It’s a story as old as time: three friends’ two of whom are in love with the other, who has no idea. Over a 26 year period, writer and director Jia Zhangke weaves the friends’ lives and fortunes in with China’s monumental social and economic changes.

Beginning in 1999 in a small industrial town, Shen Tao is a popular dance instructor; Liangzi is a miner, while Zhang owns a gas station, and one of China’s new entrepreneurs. What the two men have in common is a deep love for Tao.

They spar but eventually it gets too much for Zhang who warns off Liangzi, and tells Tao of his feelings. Put in an almost impossible position Tao makes a choice that leads to what seems an irreparable bust up. Zhang and Tao are married and have a child, Dollar.

On to 2014 and China’s growing wealth and power is palpable; what were once rough tracks are now motorways and new infrastructure is being laid.

Zhang is now very wealthy but divorced and living in shanghai with Dollar, while Tao has remained in the town. Liangzi having left sometime ago is still mining, and has a wife and son.

Very ill he returns to the town and there’s reconciliation with Tao. However Tao has her own problems with a bereavement and strained reunion with her son. The funeral scene is raw and Tao’s frustrations at the death and her son visceral.

Into 2025 a teenage Dollar (Dong Zijian) now in Australia and taking Chinese lessons. His father’s wealth is obvious though he is a shadow of his former self, a shuffling, bloated figure who speaks as little English as Dollar does Chinese. Dollar itself is a distortion of his birth name Daole.

Dollar begins a relationship with his divorcee teacher Mia (Sylvia Chang) whom he introduces to his father. Using her as an interpreter he tells his father that he wants to do his own thing while his father finally having freedom feels emasculated.

With feelings of déjà vu and with Mia’s help Dollar starts to question his past and about a mother he barely remembers. The final scenes are of an older Tao elegant, resigned but seemingly content in what is a beautiful snowy coda.

It’s a technical triumph, spanning the years, with the dates flashing up, and the screen ratios changing accordingly, signifying a relentless forward momentum, that while inevitable, may not actually be for the better of the country or the three friends.

The film is loaded with signs, metaphors and memories as Jia Zhangke takes us through China’s meteoric rise in economic power and political influence. The casualties of both the traditional industries and the new ideologies are laid bare, each content to ruthlessly cast people aside.

But there’s an emotional depth too with the excellent cast deftly handling their changing circumstances. However Zhao Tao is astonishing with a performance, of rare grace, power and versatility from playful teacher, to pillar of the community to radiant dignified seniority.

The music is integral as the original score by Yoshihiro Hanno is interspersed with songs that trigger memories and times, with the cast. The Pet Shop Boys bookend the film and never has Go West sounded and looked as profound as it does at the end of this wonderful film.