Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 01, 2020 8:26 pm 
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(Jia Zhangke Feb. 2020 Berlinale interview .)

Four writers with village pasts

No, this is not a film about immigrants braving the Mediterranean. In another documentary indirectly focused on modern Chinese culture, Jia Zhangke focuses this time on four writers, presenting them largely through their personal reminiscences, which go back to village origins and spans the early days of modern China, the Cultural Revolution included. One may be cast down by the typically blunt Chinese approach to things, but the craft of the film is fine, the score is elegant, and some of the accounts are very touching, going back often to difficult times of poverty and repression. But as in other Jia documents there is a preponderance of talking heads, a little perfunctory like his Useless (NYFF 2007). His non-fiction just doesn't match his features. In his a href="">Variety review Guy Lodge says this completes "a loose nonfiction trilogy" focused on Chinese artists." His 2006 Dong was about a painter and Useless a fashion designer. This time this scope is more "sprawling," not just in looking at four artists instead of one, but in ranging around so much in history - and demographics; a recurrent concern is city vs. country, with most of the focus on country where they all started out. Alas, this film is not fun and not very enlightening. It's by a great filmmaker, but it's not a great film. If you think I'm being harsh, look at the Metacitic rating of Jia's last film, Ash Is Purest White - 85%, and of this film 0 57%. It's deliberately rambling. Though it has about 14 chapters, each new chapter is just another topic that comes up, like "eating," "mother" or "sister" when a main speaker mentions it.

He starts with Ma Feng, a famous writer from Jia's own native town of Fenyang in Shanxi province. Here, we begin with a gathering of elders, and some of them recall Ma Feng. Apparently Ma Feng's writing reflected the tumultuous changes of the Cultural Revolution, and there is a description of the difficulty of going to a college or even getting any kind of job during this period. His daughter tells about his working up from laborer to journalist.

The three living writers touched on are Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong.

Jia Pingwa came from a family of counterrevolutionaries describes difficulty getting a job. His handwriting got him a gig painting slogans, and that led to better work and being sent to study literature at Northwest University in 1971. Later he won prizes for his many short stories featuring young men and women who were socialist heroes, but turned to native fiction celebrating his home province of Shaanxi. He has made a living as a writer since the eighties, but here he mainly recounts his scrappy beginnings.

Yu Hua recounts reading hand-me-down books saved from the Cultural Revolution that were so worn they had neither opening pages nor closing pages. He says it didn't matter who wrote the books, but he needed to know how they ended; so he began inventing endings for himself. Unmentioned here is that Yu Hua's Yu Hua’s novel To Live; became one of Zhang Yimou’s greatest films in 1994; it recounts the recurrent theme here, the trouble and repression of growing up in China from the forties to seventies. Yu Ha gave up trying to follow his bliss and became a dentist, for a while.

Liang Hong is a woman professor and writer who also focuses on poverty and exclusion growing up in a small rural town, Liang Village, near Zhengzhou, Henan, a subject of her fiction and nonfiction. (She has also written criticism and teaches literature and creative writing.) She almost breaks down describing her mother's illness gradually leaving to total paralysis, and a sense of exclusion in the town only increased when her father took in another woman after her mother's death, without marrying her. Liang's 14-year-old son, who's forgotten the local dialect since living in Beijing, talks for a bit as well, also reading from one of his mother's books. The line about the color of water comes from a return to Yu Hua, who remembers the water was always yellow near the shore when they swam as kids, though the textbooks said it was blue.

As has been commented by reviewers, this doc has good moments. The writer for Screen Anarchy, Dustin Chang, likes the storytelling. Guy Lodge of Variety sensibly prefers the scenes in between, such as a "gorgeous, gradually panoramic scene" of a village wheat harvest and of villagers harvesting wheat, another of a "flotilla of paper lanterns" on the Yellow River; and he commends and he commends Liang's 14-year-old son's "plainspoken interview," which indeed is a whiff of fresh air after all the oldsters and the weeping. But Lodge notices that the score, which even I, who often ignore musical backgrounds, notice is pretty heavy on the conventional classical stuff, is "patchier" than it ought to be due to reliance on Shshtakovich and Rachmaninoff, and worse, the "delicate footage of the Liang family’s trip to the cemetery," Lodge notes, "is ruinously scored to Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma." Opportunities for authentic musical cues are missed throughout.

Mostly what I see in Jia's nonfiction filmmaking is a certain laziness, a tendency to plunk people down and make them talk about their lives, instead of investigating and showing things, with, perhaps, relevant voiceovers from those otherwise uninteresting talking heads, whose bad teeth or poor complexions add nothing to our knowledge. Watching this film may appeal to some of the village people, or those studiously interested in them and Jia. This isn't worth ten minutes of one of his features and isn't worthy of him. The NYFF, which used to have too many documentaries, seems to have gone overboard this year.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue 直游到海水变蓝, 111 mins. debuted at Berlin Feb., 2020, also showing at Docs Against Gravity (Poland) Sept., and the (virtual) Main Slate of the New York Film Festival Oct. 1 2020, where it was screened virtually for this review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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