Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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Three by Jia Zhang-ke: Leading new director of China's "Sixth Generation" of Filmmakers

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Platform (Zhàntái; Chinese: 站台) (2000)

An off-putting but richly textured generational chronicle


This, 36-year-old Jia Zhang-ke's second film (his first, the 1997 Pickpocket or Xiao Wu (Chinese: 小武) starring Wang Hong Wei of Platform--still isn't available on a U.S. DVD), is the one he says he "had to make." There were things he had to say, and till he said them, he couldn't go on to other films. He dedicated it to his father, who he has said he had trouble communicating with. Sadly, Jia says that after his father saw the film, he had nothing to say about it.

With Platform , Jia wanted to show his father the experience of his generation, which was to have as their formative period the years from the gradual decline of Maoism to the beginnings of free enterprise, capitalism, and globalization in China: the important thing to realize is that for Jia and his contemporaries, being as they are of provincial origin and limited funds, there was little benefit to be had from either period, and they remain adrift, deracinated, and without much hope or future. But they grew up through a kaleidescopically changing world that morphed into something wholly different over a ten- or fifteen-year period and changes just as rapidly today if not more so.

Platform is a richly detailed, nostalgic, as well as ironic, work and the nostalgia is focused on a traveling troup of performers who -- starting out where they all, and Jia himself, come from, Fenyang, Shanxi Province -- begin performing crude semi-folkloric agit-prop in the last Mao days, and later on being privatized and turning into an equally crude, inept rock group-- the generically titled "All-Stars Rock 'n' Breakdance Electronic Band" -- with electronic music and a new leader. We follow the various characters, chiefly two boys and two girls, boyfriends and girlfriends -- Minliang (Wang Hong Wei ) Ruijuan (Jia's female star, Zhao Tao, who figures prominently in The World) and then Chang Jun (Liang Jing Dong) and Zhong Pin (Yang Tian Yi ), with Minliang leaving his girlfriend Ruijuan at home and apparently returning to her at the end and having a child with her -- a pattern that parallels that of Wei (Jing Jue) and her jealous boyfriend Niu (Jiang Zhong-wei) in the later Jia film The World, who fight all the time and yet wind up getting married.

Scenes jump forward through time with no attempt to provide clearcut narrative links, and they jump from one set of characters to another, though you get to know them all eventually -- with the warning that since Platform is almost free of close-ups and the Hou- or Ozu-style camera position is static at the middle distance, you sometimes can barely see who's onscreen. Jia takes a rather dim view of male-female relations here, and the couples often argue and fail to connect. Nonetheless there is a lot of intereaction and chatter and the effect is of a busy, always very specific and quirky world. There's not a single scene that is anything but complicated and real-looking, Jia showing an uncanny ability here as in Unknown Pleasures to slice his life raw and fresh. So with this almost mind-boggling sequence of scenes, we get glimpses of Jia's generation through time, and a chronicle of the whole generation is indeed built up, however fragmentedly, through the "story" of the troupe.

Typically for the director, who made this, and everything up to the 2004 The World, on zero budget without state sanction or public showings, sets feel amazingly authentic and are notably rich in miscellaneous aural and visual detail. A couple will be pouting and chatting while in the distance we hear chants of some Maoist slogans, a march perhaps. . .and pop music, which gradually had an enormous effect in giving the generation a sense of identity and a bridge into a new age, is omnipresent and comes in at the most unexpected times -- famously at a moment when the truck with the troupe in it is stuck out in the desert. One may compare that with the boy and girl talking on an unfinished rooftop construction site with big concrete pylons in The World, when a plane goes by, and the girl says "who travels in those planes?" and the boy says "I don't know." In the crowded world of modern China, there are always many things going on at once in the same place, and Jia captures this. Though not as accessible as The World or Unknown Pleasures, Platform is Jia's most complex panorama thus far.

Perhaps the members of this troupe are the people who went on to make movies with Jia Zhang-ke. Or perhaps they went to work at the "international" theme park outside Beijing that's the main setting for The World. Either way, they have progressed into what Jia sees as a grim future. But it's a rich and colorful one nonetheless.



Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao; Chinese: 任逍遥)) (2002)

Deeply affecting portrait of two young men adrift in the provinces

Jia Zhang-ke's third movie is powerful and sad. It concerns what you might call two young semi-urban hicks with no future, both rail-thin, constantly smoking, one Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei), tall and sad-faced, the other, Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong), a smaller guy with a stylish haircut that covers a lot of his face. The former has a girlfriend, but he and she agree to separate while she goes through exams. Then she reproaches him for not asking how she did, but he protests that he's out of the loop so didn't know when she was done (these boys are dirt poor and nobody has cell phones yet as everybody will in The World). His mother, a Falun Gong sympathizer, says he's useless and drinks too much, and in response he offers to enter the army. But when he has a blood test, it shows he has hepatitis and he's ineligible for military service. The orderly warns him about contact with a girl because it's very contagious. With nothing to do and apparently cut off from physical contact with his girlfriend, it seems like his life is over.

Neither guy has a job and they have no money. Xiao Ji, the smaller, more rakish one, who is all bravado and no follow-through, practically stalks a girl named Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao, the star also of Platform and The World) who's an entertainer for a drink company and who has a petty gangster for a boyfriend. This older punk eventually has Xiao roughed up at a disco for dancing with his girlfriend, and turns out to carry a gun. The girl at first rejects the boy, but then they go together and even sleep together.

After he learns he has hepatitis Bin Bin borrows money from a shyster and gives his girlfriend an expensive present in a very sad scene where he won't touch her and she leaves him sitting by himself inertly in a typically desolate train station. To say his helplessness and uselessness are palpable is an understatement: you feel them like a wound.

Both the pals have dead-end lives. Sometimes the Chinese landscape, a vast rural-turning-into-urban wasteland under construction in Jia's native Fenyang area, reminds one of Italian neorealism and the poverty of postwar European cities and one may be reminded of Pasolini's 1961 first film about young toughs with nothing to do, Accattone, but these Chinese boys are more passive and inarticulate and lack the Italians' false bravado.

Bin Bin starts selling discs to make back the money he owes but that looks hopeless and Xiao Ji's motorbike is starting to break down. Finally they decide to rob a bank. Naturally such a demanding project undertaken by two individuals of such low energy and flair is a complete flop, and the tall boy is arrested while the punk-haired one flees on the bike, but he has to leave it by the side of a desolate highway and hitch a ride in a little van-sized bus.

Bin Bin, in jail, is forced to sing a song and he sings a hopeful song about working class people he sang with his girlfriend in front of the TV at a happier moment. The film ends here, with the voiceover of the boy and girlfriend singing over the final credits.

The ironically named Unknown Pleasures is an infinitely sad, unpredictable, seemingly aimless, but ultimately very meaningful and awesome movie that is at once primitive, real, and deeply touching. This is a great movie. It takes you somewhere you've never been before, somewhere painful and unforgettable. You can say this is a "depiction of the spiritual malaise afflicting Chinese youth as a result of global capitalism" as Howard Schumann has done, but that is to articulate the thing in a way that the young, uneducated, provincial participants in the story could not do. Rather, it is a couple of aimless lives awash in a changing modern China pretty near to the bottom of the social scale; but it is also a picture of lack of chutzpah, helplessness, failure to thrive. TV's, always on in some room, show events in and out of China, new construction, criminal prosecutions, a downed US plane, Beijing chosen for the Olympics, and there is talk of dollars and video games and even Pulp Fiction's opening scene, but all this is little more than a noisy distraction for the aimless boys. The young people in Hou Hsiao Hsien's 2001 Millennium Mambo are rather different. They are all good-looking hustlers, and they may go nowhere either but they're going to make some kind of splash and spend some money along the way. But while Hou's film seems on the outside looking in cluelessly, Jia enters to the core of his characters' grim shallow lives and etches them on our hearts forever. Jia creeps up on you slowly and then never lets you go. This was the most powerful film I'd seen in a long while--other than Gianni Amelio's equally ravishing and devastating Lamerica. Unknown Pleasure's contents seem trashy and junky, but turn out to be astonishingly vivid and rich visually and aurally, a mix, also, that you've never quite seen before and aren't going to forget even if you want to.

It seems highly likely that Jia is the most talented of the "edgy underground film movement" that is the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers, as expert commentators say; but not all his work is the same. Platform has more sweep and is more personal; The World is more up-to-date and relevant; but this is the one that grabbed me and showed me Jia's raw greatness as a filmmaker. It has more drive and more emotional power than anything else he has done so far.



The World (Shijie; Chinese: 世界) (2004)

A government-funded film on the ravages of globalization


Jia's previous films were at first known to hundreds of thousands of Chinese only through pirated DVD's. He has kept his style but lost some of his edge -- while gaining more of a world-wide audience -- with this state-funded, US-distributed work. The World is notable for its rather relentless harping on the irony of a globalized China whose underlings can't get out of the country and are stuck in menial jobs at this big silly 11-site theme park outside Beijing, surrounded by miniaturized towers of Pisa or Eiffel and Big Ben and Manhattan skyline complete with WTC, but cut off from their native dialects and from where they came from (without gaining any economic advantage) and reduced to expressing their strongest emotions in text messages and cellphone chats. There are compelling moments, like the two main lovers Taisheng (Taisheng Chen) and Tao (Jia's omnipresnet female star, Zhao Tao) lying on Taisheng's hard dormitory bed and even the schmaltzy wordless communing between Tao and her Russian friend Anna (Alla Shcherbakova), but in the aimless round of daily emptiness of working at this trashy hi-tech carnival falsification of "The World" outside, whose actual wonders the workers will never see in person, Jia loses the momentum of the turbulent, emotional decade he chronicles in Platform or the tragic downward spiral of the two boys in Unknown Pleasures. These are people going round and round on a monorail to nowhere. I don't object to the animations, because they're thematically unified by always being connected to travel and cellphones and they create a sense of link with the 20-somethings, the generation after the director's that he's focusing on here; the fact that they're glib and kitsch just fits with everything else quite intentionally. So does the New Age-y techno music score, which is annoying and repetitious, but again, intentionally so. This time there is a bluntly ironic contrast between the pretty, brightly colored costumes of the World shows the girls put on, and the shabby run-down environments in which they live off-duty. The contrast is a little too pat: surely some of the environments -- and there is one, at the train station -- off duty are as glittering and new as the World stage shows. One can't say that Jia has lost the complexity of environment he achieved in his earlier films; he's just limited himself to a single unifying venue. But there is something transparently too programmatic about this pat initial limitation. One may miss the jangling ambient noise of Platform and Unknown Pleasures, though, and particularly the informative TV broadcasts of the latter, which always fit in context even though they may speak to us more than to the characters.

For me, Unknown Pleasures is by far the emotional peak of Jia's work so far, and hence the film that puts across his themes most powerfully as well. Next comes Platform, which is off-putting and sometimes almost absurdly hard to follow, but which nonetheless obviously has deep personal significance to the director as an authentic portrait of his generation's journey into the Nineties. The World is almost too self-consciously a development of his themes of alienation and globalization and of a generation without hope or aims. The theme park is almost too obvious and too good a metaphor, and it robs his excellent actors (the more I see of them the more I'm impressed by how good they are) of the opportunity to be themselves for more than a few minutes at a time.

Roger Ebert reports a touching little moment after seeing The World: "After the screening, I rode down on the elevator with the great film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. 'I've seen it five times,' he said. 'It's one of my favorite films. I still don't understand the ending.' I was not only afraid to ask him what he didn't understand about the ending, I was afraid to ask him what he thought the ending was." Well, it's pretty clear what the ending is, Roger. But what does the ending mean? It seems to mean more than anything else that Jia wants to hit us over the head with the idea that his characters have nowhere to go, and it also seemed to me to be somehow a too-late subconscious attempt to steal from the kind of devastating finalities we get in Kiselowski's Dekalog -- which doesn't seem to gibe with Jia's ironic and fragmentary vision. This ending only underlines, by contrast with the world of Kieslowski, that Jia's post-millennial China is by all appearances largely detached from any perceptible functioning moral system, any logic, any sense of justice.

The World perhaps meanders too much given the failure to connect emotionally, but it is nonetheless a powerful, rich, and original work and Jia is unquestionably one of the great ones of his generation working anywhere, and representing as he does literally millions and millions of people in a dynamic enormously changing country, we can go further and say that he stands as one of the world's (small W) most important living directors. Whether "success" in the form of more publically visible film-making and state funding will "destroy" him or water down his raw originality is an open question. But even in this relatively theme-obsessed version of Jia's work, there remains in The World what Kevin Lee called, in a perceptive Senses of Cinema study,"the glorious strangeness of Jia's aesthetic" -- a strangeness of the changing world as intense probably to Jia and his characters as it is to us. And this, apart from the "relevance" and "informational" content and the emotional portraiture of contemporary Chinese experience (or his style's similarities to Ozu or Hou or Altman, et al.), is what makes Jia's filmmaking an exciting and wholly new experience.

Subsequent Jia Zhang-ke features:
Still Life (2007) My review here.
Useless (2007) My review here. (NYFF).
24 City (2008) My review here.
A Touch of Sin . Cannes 2013. My review here (NYFF).
Mountains May Depart. Cannes 2015. My review here. (NYFF).
(Also 3 documentaries and 2 short films.)

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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