by Kevin Lee
Kevin Lee is a filmmaker and writer based in New York City.
| Jia Zhangke is a leading figure of what is known as the Sixth Generation
of film directors in the People's Republic of China, following the Fifth
Generation, whose members include Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. The
Fifth Generation directors occupy themselves mostly with spectacle-driven
mythic histories laden with pointed social criticisms that jeopardize their
standing with the government censors. In contrast, the Sixth Generation
filmmakers largely produce their gritty, contemporary realist films well
outside of the state system, relying instead on personal or private funding,
often through sources outside China. Filmed without government approval,
the work of filmmakers such as Jia, Zhang Yuan (East Palace West Palace,
1997) and Wang Xiaoshuai (So Close to Paradise , Beijing
Bicycle ) remain mostly undistributed within China, save for the
illegal circulation of pirated video copies. Their films focus on examining
contemporary settings and lifestyles, touching on controversial topics such
as sexuality, bureaucratic corruption, unemployment, drug abuse, prostitution
and AIDS. They often employ improvisational techniques with non-professional
actors to better evoke the feeling of an everyday China they
seek to capture. Jia accounts for the difference in his own words:
Interestingly, when it comes to describing Jia's aesthetic, critics and scholars seem disinclined to compare him to his Fifth Generation forebears; instead they summon an assortment of international auteurs as points of reference. Kent Jones describes Jia's use of lengthy camera takes as being indebted to Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yasujiro Ozu, (2) while Jonathan Rosenbaum links that same quality to the films of Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso. (3) Jones also associates Jia to Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman in what he describes as a common ability to encapsulate the lifestyles, dreams and behaviors of their respective generations, while Stephen Teo invokes Raul Ruiz to explain a quality he sees in both Jia and Ruiz's depiction of the empty lives of youth: the dead time of underdevelopment. (4) For the record, Jia cites Hou and Ozu, (5) as well as Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica as influences on his work. (6)
While these impressive points of reference may lend a feeling of familiarity to those unacquainted with Jia's films, (7) what risks getting lost in the translation is the glorious strangeness of Jia's aesthetic. It's worth making this point because the strangeness of the world is itself a central theme of Jia's films. It's a strangeness that descends on his characters and impedes their ability to cope with changes which may be as imperceptible as the shifting trends in music and fashion over months and years, or as sudden and calamitous as a factory explosion. While the filmmakers of the Sixth Generation generally focus on capturing the dramatic bizarreness of their immediate surroundings, what may elevate Jia Zhangke above his peers is his acute sense of how the local occurrences that appear onscreen are shaped by immense, unfathomable global forces emanating from sources well off-screen. Jia's importance on the global cinematic stage is inextricably tied to his depiction of contemporary China, if only because Jia's China reflects global conditions and trends that affect us all.
Jia's need to depict this cultural bewilderment permeates the screen in his startling one-hour short Xiao Shan Going Home (Xiao Shan Hui Jia, 1995), which he completed at the Beijing Film Academy. Xiao Shan, played by Jia's film school classmate, Wang Hongwei, is an unemployed cook living in Beijing. The film follows him as he plans to return to his rural hometown for the Chinese New Year festival: he accompanies a fellow home-towner to shop for gifts to bring with them and asks a friend for help in buying train tickets. These seemingly innocuous episodes are rife with unexpected obstacles, leading Xiao to encounter frustration and even violence. This simple story of a country boy stuck in the big bad city may have autobiographical undertones for the director. It also embodies the experience endured every year by hundreds of millions of Chinese who, like Xiao Shan, have migrated from the countryside to seek better living and working situations. Jia makes the connection between Xiao Shan's personal odyssey and the broader social condition by presenting the full text of a newspaper article about the New Year mass-traveling phenomenon as an intertitle. It is one of several remarkable intertitles throughout the film, the only film to use such a device in Jia's career to date. Most of the titles are reproductions of the texts found in everyday Chinese life: the first is a resume listing the hero's vital statistics, as well as his career aspirations; another announces, in an officious tone of literary narration, that Xiao Shan is visiting his friend to watch television, which is followed by a title of the TV program schedule for the evening. Unlike most student films that seem gratuitously intent on showing off their bag of tricks, this experimental technique uncovers an everyday China that has never been depicted onscreen, while humorously mocking the officious tone of both Chinese media broadcasts and high literature by placing them in the context of a mundane existence.
Jia's technique of aural alienation acquires an explicitly personal significance when he appears as one of Xiao Shan's friends during an extended dormitory party sequence, and (bolstered by several rounds of liquor) his character unleashes a torrent of words in Jia's native Shanxi dialect. It is as if Jia is personally compensating for seven decades of Chinese movies that have been dubbed in the standard Mandarin dialect in accordance with Government language policy. Jia's unapologetic use of dialect, comparable to Hou Hsiao-Hsien's groundbreaking work with multiple dialects in Taiwanese cinema, identifies him as a cultural minority in his home country, which paradoxically speaks on behalf of a majority of Chineseparticularly those in rural areaswho speak in their own local, non-standard tongues. Jia's universal insight is thus rooted in his insistence on the uniqueness of the local.
But if acknowledging both the strangeness and the familiarity of the diversity that exists in one's own country involves finally giving screen time to indigenous subcultures, there's also the matter of acknowledging cultural influences from abroad. Again, the realm of sound becomes the cultural battleground, with songs like The Carpenters' saccharine '70s hit Yesterday Once More (a song that is absurdly popular among students throughout China), a muzak version of Edith Piaf's Hymne à l'amour, and '90s MTV hits Runaway Train by Soul Asylum and The Crash Test Dummies' Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm serving as potential cannon fodder for the viewer. Their presence may merely be incidental; Jia's technique in his films often involves letting his camera and microphone pick up whatever happens to be present. But I have never seen any film shot in China (or possibly any country) that so unobtrusively evokes the awareness that the world we live in is saturated with cultural influences. What's most fascinating about these selections is how well they service the themes of the story. The Carpenters' nostalgic elegy for a more innocent past, Soul Asylum's plaintive ode to derelict lives, and the Crash Test Dummies' anecdotal ballad of inexplicable ironies all connect to Xiao Shan's experience. The songs fit so well that one has to wonder on what terms Jia is consciously utilizing them, if indeed he is conscious of their presence. Does he incorporate them as mere Western signifiers? Does he appreciate the significance of their lyrics to his story? How much meaning would Chinese audiences (urban and rural), or Westerners for that matter, gather from these songs? The richness of material embedded onscreen, and its ability to evoke a plethora of observations casts attention on the audience's ability to sort it out, whoever and wherever they may be and whatever associations they may bring to their act of viewing. Jia's cinema is a dynamic, unsettled process of interpretation and dialogue across cultures, both between and within national borders.
Xiao Shan Going Home provided Jia with an opportunity to cross borders when he screened it at the 1997 Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards, where it won the top prize. There he met Yu Lik-wai, who would serve as cinematographer in all of his subsequent features. (9) Together with Yu's production partner Li Kit Ming, they collaborated on Jia's first feature Xiao Wu (1997) which would establish their international reputation as being among the most important filmmakers working in China.
Xiao Wu's negotiation of his various identities is symbolized by an assortment of objects that change in significance as he ventures from one milieu to another. A ring intended for his girlfriend is presented to his mother after he is jilted, only to land on the finger of his sister-in-law as a gift from the family; he buys a pager to keep in contact with his girl, only to have it sound off in the midst of a pickpocketing attempt. His inability to reconcile his identities leads to his loss of all of them: when he finds the ring on its unintended wearer, he reacts vehemently against his family until he is banished from the house; the pager, the last vestige of his failed relationship, leads to his capture after its ill-timed sounding.
But the story does not settle for this moment of contentment as the one that defines Xiao Wu's identity. Instead Xiao Wu's ties with friends and family are dissolved until in the final scene he is left in a startling and cinematically rich moment of nakedness for both the director and his hero. Apprehended by the police, Xiao Wu sits handcuffed to the side of the road, branded as a criminal. A crowd gathers and, within the realm of the story, gawk at Xiao Wu. The fabric of the film's reality starts to tear when it becomes apparent that the crowdconsisting not of paid extras but passers-byis staring at the movie crew as well as the prisoner. The camera swings to assume the same P.O.V. as Xiao Wu, close to the ground, gazing up at the gawking crowd, so that both the camera and the actorand the act of cinematic production itselfhave become public spectacles. Again, the idea of stealing informs the work of Jia's camera. It cops a gaze at the crowd, some of whom turn away, while others stand transfixed by what is looking back at them. The power of the camera's gaze brings to mind a variety of gazes in and around Chinese society: those of the government, of neighbors, and of foreigners seeking an inside look at an exotic world. This moment of mutual gazing brings attention sharply towards us, the audience, locating our own act of spectatorship within the spectacle. We are implicated in a collective urge to look, and are captured in a moment that inverts the positions of spectator and spectacle so that they become one and the same in a panoptic society that describes China, the world, and the cinema.
If Wang Hongwei's role as Xiao Wu is an onscreen correlative for Jia's directorial identity as an artisan/thief stealing candid glimpses of Chinese life, in Platform Wang's character Cui Mingliang personifies Jia as an aspiring artist, seeking a mutually fulfilling relationship with his Chinese audience. It's telling, then, that most of the on-screen spectators in Platform regard the performances with baffled looks. That bewilderment is reciprocated by the overwhelmed and frustrated troupe; for much of the film they have great difficulty expressing their inner desires and frustrations; they find their most direct emotional release when the music starts to play. (11) The bewilderment of encountering the inexpressible is also discernible in Jia's camera-eyethe film's uniqueness has much to do with how it captures the mysteriousness of empty spaces, not only of desolate industrial landscapes but of things left unsaid between friends and lovers. For the most part, the rest of the film is a cautious processional of emotions suppressed by environmental confusion and daily necessity, of increasing burden of responsibilities that heap steadily and unremittingly as these children enter an adult existence of subdued ambitions and diminishing returns.
The most emotional outbursts involve the playing of pop songs whose sounds and voices convey the hope and dreams of a world of disenfranchised youth. Such an outburst occurs when a young girl (Zhao Tao), who has quit the group to take up a tax collecting job at her father's behest, is sitting at her desk at a late hour, when a song on the radio suddenly provokes her to give herself away to the music and dance in utter rapture.
The experience of this film can admittedly be torturous for the uninitiated or the impatient, a reaction that leads to criticisms that Jia is an undisciplined filmmaker who doesn't know how to repackage the pace of life in a way that most mainstream film viewers can readily consume. To criticize the film's singular aesthetic is to risk making a cultural judgment against a way of experiencing life that can increasingly be found in economically emerging nations all over the world. (And here I cannot disguise my personal investment in defending this representation of lifeas someone who lived for two years in rural China teaching students not unlike the kids in this film, I can say, with gratitude, that this film nails the experience of living in China in ways I never thought possible.) Part of understanding the life shown onscreen involves appreciating the unique attitudes towards life reflected in the film and its characters: a certain naiveté mixed with immense curiosity. (In one scene a girl asks her friend in a giddy yet hushed tone, as if fearing eavesdroppers, Is it true that kissing makes you pregnant?). Another part involves appreciating the ambience, where sound (mixed by Zhang Yang, an accomplished director in his own right) once again plays a major role. The film is punctuated by the random, vaguely menacing broadcasts of radios and public loudspeakers, ceremoniously announcing events that seem to have no bearing on one's immediate surroundings: the persecution and subsequent rehabilitation of a high ranking official in Beijing, or the weather forecast in Inner Mongolia.
These elements contribute to Platform's grand achievement, the monumental experience of time: how periods in one's life seem to pass at a glacial pace until they inexplicably vanish, and one has slipped irreversibly into a new stage of being. In Platform Jia uses rhyming patterns to mark the effect: the sound of a train whistle, the lengths and looks of hairstyles, and the increasingly distressed cadences of pop music are all elements that recur in varying forms through the course of the film. It is with Platform that Jia joins the ranks of contemporary filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai, who have all been at the vanguard of analyzing the qualities of cinematic time and its relationship to time in one's non-cinematic experience. (12)
The distance between Jia and his protagonists is compounded by the brief appearances of Jia's onscreen alter-ego Wang Hongwei, reprising his role as Xiao Wu. But instead of returning as the endearing, sympathetic loner, Xiao Wu is now a clean-shaven yet soulless black marketer whose shamelessly exploitive demeanor is far more terrifying than comic. Jia himself appears in the first scene of the film, standing in front of Xiao Ji and singing what sounds like the Brindisi from La Traviata, but in an indistinct language that sounds like a garbled mix of Italian and Chinese. (14) This moment can be clearly connected to Jia's extensive babbling in his native dialect in Xiao Shan Going Home; but now his speech is completely unintelligible, except perhaps only to himself. Xiao Ji walks away, concluding that the man is merely insane.
Jia's dilemma with locating himself in this film reflects back to his audience, whoever or wherever they may be, and how they locate themselves in this tragic enactment of the present. It seems that to see through Jia's camera-eye is to become a spectator to one's own ineffectuality in the face of global forces that seem well beyond one's control. It's exhilarating to find that someone making movies today shares one's sense of a greater condition that one could describe as global marginalization. But there is a risk in finding solace in such a connection, that it entrenches us in our feeling of exclusion and ineffectuality. Jia himself has always tended to romanticize the young luckless heroes of all his films, but the final movements of Unknown Pleasures seem to indicate that his fascination with hopeless rebellion has reached a moment of reckoning. Xiao Ji and Bin Bin are separated in an abortive bank robbery attempt, and Xiao Ji flees on his bike (a major symbol of iconoclastic individualism in the film) until it sputters and stops. He then climbs into a passing public bus, hiding in the anonymity of the common crowd. Meanwhile, Bin Bin is interrogated at the police station; standing against a wall, possibly facing a death sentence, and as a final gesture of defeated defiance, he moans the lyrics to his favorite pop song, which recalls Jia's unintelligible operatic howls in the opening sceneJia and his protagonist are rejoined in the same, terminally individualistic action. The respective fates that Xiao Ji and Bin Bin meet may speak for the options left not only for underprivileged Chinese youth, but for Jia's defiant brand of filmmaking. The choices seem to be: does one retreat back into the crowd and live to fight another day, or does one speak out more boldly, whatever the consequences of being persecuted or misunderstood?
To realize that the quietly observant and ultimately affirmative portrait of humanity depicted in In Public would grow into the incendiary bleakness and outrage of Unknown Pleasures brings the present dilemma of Jia's filmmaking into focus. In the course of filming the feature, did he feel that, to expand his project into a commercial feature, it was necessary to load it with topical reference points and sharp social criticisms? Has Jia become discontented with the mere act of being a detached but attentive observer of the world? What does the future hold for the increasingly aggressive and morally outraged tone of his films, a tone that seems ever more frustrated with its position as an outsider in the world it continually seeks to depict?
Again, we are brought back to the respective fates of Xiao Ji and Bin Bin: one seeks refuge in the anonymity of the impassive crowd, while another sings out defiantly, expressing Jia's unnerved, even virulent need to take a stand against the mounting inequities of the world. This conflict in artistic intent, that confronts the calm observer with the impassioned activist, is to me what makes Jia's next project worth anticipating eagerly. In the meantime, wethose lucky enough to have access to his films either through festival screenings or pirated videohave a small but formidable body of work to interpret, discuss, critique and defend, and in doing so we are reinvigorated with the possibilities of contemporary cinema to affect our relationship with the world we live in. In watching the films that Jia Zhangke has made to date, one can't help feeling the world is a very exciting, mysterious and perplexing place. One can't help feeling grateful to be reminded of the innumerability of life's details, and the urgency of its dilemmas.
© Kevin Lee, February 2003
Shan Goes Home
(1995) short film. Available on pirated video in China.
Michael Berry, "Cultural
Fallout," Film Comment, March/April 2003, pp. 61-64
Articles in Senses of Cinema
with An AccentInterview with Jia Zhangke, director of Platform
Web Resources Compiled by author
Lights: China's Sixth Generation directors
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