Jia Zhangke

b. 1970, Fenyang, China

by Kevin Lee


Kevin Lee is a filmmaker and writer based in New York City.
 
Jia Zhangke

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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 [1998], Beijing Bicycle [2001]) 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:

In the 80s, the fifth generation filmmakers were real heroes: they managed to break Chinese cinema out of its closed little mould and try something new. But they've changed a lot: in their current films, you're no longer seeing the experience of life in China. While my way of filming allows me to describe Chinese reality without distortion. (1)

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.

  Platform: on location. Jia (right)
 
Platform: on location. Jia (left)
Though Jia was born in 1970 in Fenyang, a small rural town in Shanxi province, his family was not of peasant origin; they were sent to the countryside because of his grandfather's experience as a surgeon in Europe. By looking at Jia's films, all set in Shanxi, one perceives that his rural upbringing has had a profound effect on his aesthetic. Since the implementation of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the late 1980s (when Jia's film Platform takes place), tremendous socio-economic changes have occurred in China, generated primarily from the urban centers along the coast, but gradually rippling into the rural, inland areas, such as Shanxi. The rural areas are not only geographically but governmentally, economically and even culturally distanced from the sources of change. As depicted in Jia's films, the process of social reform acquires a surreal quality of cultural incongruity. A favorite example of mine occurs in Platform when a farmer chastises his son for wearing skin-tight bell-bottoms: “How are you going to do any lifting in that?” The imposition of cultural forces on an unprepared rural community can be discerned in the film Jia claims to have inspired him to become a filmmaker, Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984). (8) This state of incomprehension, of being unprepared to deal with cultural reforms and the new rules they require, is a theme that resonates throughout Jia's work.

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.

  Platform
 
Platform
If Jia's intent is to restore reality to China's cinema, his objective is perhaps most fully realized in the film's evocative soundtrack. Over the opening titles a woman chatters in an unidentified dialect, without even Chinese subtitles to interpret her words; the experience is as alienating for most Chinese audiences as for non-Chinese. The audience listens to the sound of her voice without understanding, which becomes an act of understanding how foreign one's own culture can be.

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 Chinese—particularly those in rural areas—who 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
 
Xiao Wu
Shot on 16mm and made for 400,000 Chinese RMB (equivalent to US$50,000), Xiao Wu has the peculiarly endearing quality of inventing and evolving itself on the fly, in its use of narrative conventions and its cinematic techniques. While the film stays resolutely focused on the title character, a pickpocket, and the city of Fenyang in which he conducts his business, the anti-hero's milieu is constantly shifting, revealing new aspects of his personality, just as the film style takes on new aspects from one sequence to the next. Two of the film's main themes, the act (and the art) of stealing and the transient possession of identity (personal, cultural or aesthetic) become entangled over the course of the film's meandering narrative. The story keeps shifting in tone and story, from a terse Bressonian study of pickpockets to a more character-driven story of broken honor-among-thieves, to a romantic interlude reminiscent of Godard's Breathless (1959), to a rustic family drama whose staid observations on farm life recall a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Through this series of unpredictable episodes, Xiao Wu's manifold personality is reflected in a rich variety of social contexts and personal relationships: pickpocket/craftsman, organizer/bully/exploiter of juvenile thieves, lonely schoolboy romantic, rebellious son.

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.

  Xiao Wu
 
Xiao Wu
If Xiao Wu's identity is in constant revision and negotiation, one can say the same for Jia's aesthetic identity in this film. Mirroring Xiao Wu's engagement with multiple identities, Jia technique employs different approaches towards his camerawork, mise-en-scene, and narrative tone from scene to scene. One could say that Jia assumes his alter-ego's identity by “stealing” cinematic styles from a host of influences, such as Bresson, Godard and De Sica. He even explicitly “steals” the soundtrack from John Woo's The Killer to provide a surreal ambience for an extended middle sequence set in a public square. But as with his protagonist, Jia's working with multiple surfaces ultimately leads to the abandonment of all of them: in the end, both the filmmaker and his hero are left utterly naked, exposed and devoid of artifice. The film's project, described by Tony Rayns as the “stripping away layer after layer of his loser's armour until he's left as "naked" as a person can be,” (10) is made explicit in a scene midway through the film where he is shown standing fully unclothed and alone in a public bathhouse. Outside of the context of any social interaction, he starts to sing gleefully off-key, and it seems that for a fleeting moment, he has found his true self.

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 crowd—consisting not of paid extras but passers-by—is 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 actor—and the act of cinematic production itself—have 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.

  Platform
 
Platform
Xiao Wu's success on the global festival circuit led to a partnership with Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's production company. Jia's expanded international funding base allowed him to film his most ambitious project to date, Platform (2000). The film charts the span of a decade in which the adolescent members of the state-sponsored Peasant Culture Group of Fenyang face the immense economic and cultural reforms of the 1980s, leading to their privatization and reincarnation as the All-Star Rock n' Breakdance Electronic Band. The lengthy time span covered in this epic results in a sprawling yet dense work that can be interpreted in many ways: an exploration of the role of the artist in society; a critique of the late 20th century ideals of capitalism, freedom and popular culture, especially for those living in emerging economic regions who are ill-equipped to handle the realities behind their allure; a meditation on the progressive—or regressive—relationship between history, economy and culture; and an examination of the problems of personal fulfillment and creative individual expression in a society long governed by communal relationships and family responsibilities.

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-eye—the 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 life—as 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)

  Unknown Pleasures
 
Unknown Pleasures
What is sad is that all of the virtues to be found in the languid, rustic way of life depicted in Platform's '80s Chinese setting become downright nightmarish in the contemporary post-industrial wasteland of Jia's subsequent feature. Unknown Pleasures (2002) emerged from a short documentary project Jia completed about the city of Datong. (13) The main characters Xiao Ji and Bin Bin are unemployed teens several years younger than Jia, marking a slight generational distance between director and protagonists for the first time in Jia's filmography. They seem less developed that the characters of his previous films; or more specifically, they seem to be in a state of arrested development. With no strong parental presence in the film, the attitudes of these kids are almost completely derived by the electronic mass media that they consume and that consumes them. They are enraptured—if not ensnared—in a life of perpetual diversion, whether through playing video games or singing karaoke. They receive regular transmissions from the media about the dastardly acts of the American government, the immense wealth to be had by playing the lottery, or the glorious triumph of Beijing's Olympic bid, events that seem greatly removed from their immediate concerns and yet set the tone for their attitudes from one day to the next. It is as if one of the key virtues to Jia's way of seeing, his gift of taking in the immense diversity of his surroundings, is envisioning its own antithesis: the experience of culture has become an act of endless consumption without meditation or moral reflection. The raw yet beautifully ethereal quality of the images Jia captures using digital video serves as a destabilizing counterpoint to the mindless pursuit of pleasure, underscoring a sense of malaise and desperation lying beneath the surface.

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.

  Xiao Wu
 
Xiao Wu
Jia may be commenting on how the global perspective he has developed, incorporating both Eastern and Western cultural attitudes, has rendered his films unintelligible to his native audience. But unlike his onscreen character, Jia the director engages in a dialogue with his protagonists; he does this by reflecting their attitudes in his own technique. Xiao Ji and Bin Bin's attitudes themselves are appropriated from the pirated Hollywood videos they see, much like the knock-off designer clothing they wear. Xiao Ji expresses his love for Pulp Fiction, marveling at how easily American criminals get away with robberies and looting, in a diner scene that is set up and shot in almost the same manner as the opening scene in the Tarantino picture. But these moments only lead back to a feeling of exclusion. In an underground disco, Xiao Ji does a mean impersonation of John Travolta's famous Pulp Fiction shimmy, only to receive a serious beating for dancing with the wrong girl. In another scene, Xiao Wu asks a peddler of pirated video discs if he has Xiao Wu or Platform, to which the peddler shakes his head and hands him a copy of Pulp Fiction. Jia can't even locate himself in the world of his own films, ruefully regarding the inability of his work to connect back to its source of inspiration. (On the other hand the fact that someone asked for those titles implies that his presence persists, somewhere. In interviews with Jia, much has been made of private video societies who circulate foreign or illegal DVDs for communal discussion and viewing: “A parallel circuit is growing up, which shows my films and those of other directors banned from official distribution, such as Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiao-chuai or Yu Lik-wai. The critics are better than in the official press, and they organise informal festivals. Our films and their activism are creating a change in popular taste and even beginning to influence the official approach to cinema. This new film appreciation owes a lot to the explosion of the black market in DVDs, thanks to which a great number of people have discovered, through Godard or Hou Hsiao-hsien, that there are other ways to make films than the academicism of the [Chinese] studios or Hollywood product.) (15)

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 scene—Jia 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?

  Unknown Pleasures
 
Unknown Pleasures
Looking at the stark options presented in Unknown Pleasures for Jia's characters and his own filmmaking, I can't help but seek consolation by reflecting on the short documentary that led to the feature. In Public, which Bérénice Reynaud describes in detail in a Senses of Cinema review, (16) seems strongly situated between Platform and Unknown Pleasures, utilizing the patient long takes of the former to lend a calm melancholy to the same post-industrial wasteland digitally rendered in the latter. While the film, being as intent on examining places as it is on examining people, can be described as a location scouting video for Unknown Pleasures, the human moments that occur onscreen retain a startling mystery. People pass by Jia's camera hardly noticing its presence, being as caught up as they are in their own business, the details of which are never made known to us. There are fleeting glimpses of people waiting at train and bus stations, talking to people they meet in passing, or dancing and singing karaoke in the midst of other strangers. The film is distinctly lacking in the topicality, the cramming of every headline news event into the narrative, that risked overloading Unknown Pleasures with overt meaning. The “characters” in In Public elude definition, in a film that thrives on indeterminacy and intuitive observation; nothing is definable, everything is mysterious and fascinating. The final images of people dancing in a crowded ballroom (the same ballroom that found Jia singing in isolation in Unknown Pleasures) evoke a sense of people persevering despite the impoverishment of their existence. In Public is the Jia Zhangke of Xiao Shan Goes Home, demonstrating a way of looking that espouses the virtues of wonder at the mysteries of the world.

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, we—those lucky enough to have access to his films either through festival screenings or pirated video—have 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

Endnotes:

  1. From Samuel Douhaire, “Far from the Mandarins of Beijing”, Liberation, May 25, 2002 http://www.liberation.com/page.php?Article=29354

  2. See Kent Jones, “Out of Time”, Film Comment, Vol. 38, No. 5, September/October 2002, pp. 43-47

  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Capsule review of Platform, Chicago Reader Brief Reviews Archive, http://www.chireader.com/movies

  4. Stephen Teo, “Cinema with an Accent: an Interview with Jia Zhangke, director of Platform”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 15, July-August 2001, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/15/zhangke_interview.html

  5. ibid

  6. Virginie Rapin, Interview with Jia Zhangke: “Tetu comme un Chinois” found at http://www.infocomnantes.net/f3c/00/mar2/gplan/gplan1.html

  7. By my count, there have been four specific instances where films by other directors appear in Jia's films. In Xiao Wu, a lengthy sequence occurs on a street where audio from John Woo's The Killer (1989) can be heard blaring from the theater. In Platform, a group of teens are shown watching Raj Kapoor's 1951 Bollywood classic Awaara (one of my favorite films, to which I owe Platform gratitude for introducing to me). In Unknown Pleasures, music from Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love (2000) can be heard inside a video salon, and a pirated copy of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) is being hawked on the street along with Jia's own Xiao Wu and Platform and Yu Lik-wai's Love Will Tear Us Apart (1999).

  8. Teo, op cit.

  9. “I only saw two minutes of his film during the awards ceremony, but it was enough for me to decide that he would be my cameraman. They were the sort of images I wanted.” Pierre Haski, “Independent Films Made by the Gang,” Libération, January 22, 2003

  10. Tony Rayns, Review of Xiao Wu, found on http://www.usc.edu/isd/archives/asianfilm/china/xiaowu.html

  11. It is for this reason that I consider the 155 minute “distributor's cut” a lamentable reduction of the original 190 minute version, especially because what has been reduced have been the production numbers (including the most hilarious scene I recall from either version of the film, in which all members of the All Star Rock n' Breakdance Electronic Band: long-haired rock n' rollers, go-go dancer girls and slippery footed breakdancers, all take stage at once for their finale. Why they excised this of all scenes is beyond me. Not only is it the juiciest bone one can throw an audience, but it's also the one moment where the efforts of these young aspiring artists have their greatest moment in the sun, before they disband forever into the anonymity of adulthood.)

  12. For what it's worth, here I would like to describe the coda to the original version of the film, which has since been excised from the “distributor's cut”. It begins with a long shot of a silhouetted figure standing in the midst of a vast and desolate landscape, firing a rifle towards the sun lingering on the horizon (whether it is rising or setting is not made clear, and it adds to the alluring mystery of the image). The camera pans away from the armed figure until it reveals the entire ensemble of the movie, dressed in their performance costumes, standing together and facing the sun, in such a way that resembles the idealized human profiles depicted on Chinese currency. These people, whose collective hopes have been dashed over the course of the film, are given one final chance to re-occupy a common space, bravely facing the sun that symbolizes the setting of an old age, or the dawning of a new, or both. This is one of the most beautifully lyrical and humanistic images I've witnessed in the recent history of cinema, and for some reason it's not even in the final cut.

  13. The genesis for Unknown Pleasures came during Jia's work on a documentary project sponsored by Korea's 2001 Chonju Film Festival to make a short film using digital technology (Tsai Ming-liang and John Akomfah were the other participants that year). “Originally, I just wanted to show the factories and warehouses which were built in the 1950s-60s and are now derelict. But gradually the idea of introducing characters took shape. I was able to develop the project thanks to DV [digital] cameras, which allow for quick decisions, flexible use and saving money.” From “Jia Zhang-ke, cineaste” an interview with Jia by Jean-Michel Frodon, published in Le Monde, May 25, 2002 http://www.lemonde.fr/article/0,5987,3250--277079-,00.html

  14. A Chinese version of the song does play in the scene when Beijing is announced as the host of the 2012 Olympics, but the Chinese lyrics do not resemble the gibberish coming from Jia's mouth.

  15. ibid

  16. Bérénice Reynaud, “Cutting Edge and Missed Encounters”, Senses of Cinema, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/20/tsai_digital.html


  Zhao Tao and Jia Zhang-ke
 
Zhao Tao and Jia Zhang-ke

Filmography

Xiao Shan Goes Home (1995) short film. Available on pirated video in China.

Du Du (1995) short film

Xiao Wu (1997) Undistributed. Available on pirated video in China.

Platform (Zhantai) (2000) Distributed by Ad vitam (France) and Primer Plano (Argentina). Available on DVD through Artificial Eye and on pirated video in China.

In Public (2001) short documentary.

Unknown Pleasures (Ren Xiao Yao) (2002) Distributed by e-pictures (France), Bitters End and Office Kitano (Japan) and New Yorker Films (USA). Available on pirated video in China.

The World (Shijie) (2004)

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Select Bibliography

Michael Berry, "Cultural Fallout," Film Comment, March/April 2003, pp. 61-64

Pierre Haski, “Independent Films Made by the Gang,” Liberation, January 22, 2003

Kent Jones, “Out of Time,” Film Comment, Vol. 38, No. 5, September/October 2002, pp. 43-47

Didier Peron, “China Down,” Liberation, January 22, 2003

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Articles in Senses of Cinema

Cinema with An Accent–Interview with Jia Zhangke, director of Platform by Stephen Teo

Cutting Edge and Missed Encounters by Bérénice Reynaud

Bringing the World to the Nation: Jia Zhangke and the Legitimation of the Chinese Underground Film by Valerie Jaffee

An Interview with Jia Zhangke by Valerie Jaffee

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Web Resources     Compiled by author

Bright Lights: China's Sixth Generation directors
Article about the Sixth Generation from Time Magazine Asia

Director Aims Lens at China's New Generation
Interview with Jia at Cannes, from Taipei Times.

Far from the Mandarins of Beijing
Report of Jia Zhangke and cohorts in Cannes for Unknown Pleasures. In French, from Liberation.

In the Realm of the Censors
Another profile of the Sixth Generation, from the UK Telegraph

Interview with Jia Zhangke
In French, from Le Monde

Jia Zhangke: Pickpocket Director
Early review of Xiao Wu and biography of Jia from a Chinese website.

Jia Zhangke Web Interview: part 2
Second half of Michael Berry interview in Film Comment, March/April 2003 issue.

Music Concrete
Jia discusses music in Platform with the Village Voice

Platform
Comprehensive page by USC Asian Film Connections, including interview with Jia Zhangke by Tony Rayns.

Platform: a long march towards the absurd.
French review from Le Monde.

Unknown Pleasures
From USC Asian Film Connections

Unknown Pleasures
Review

Xiao Wu
Review by Tony Rayns on USC Asian Film Connections site

Xiao Wu
Review by World Socialist Website

Xiao Wu
Early capsule reviews from Hong Kong critics.

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