One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.
世界 Shijie (The World, 2004) [certificate 12]
This feels like one of those films that really, self-consciously, is trying to Make A Statement about modern life. Every director seems to have one in them, and Jia Zhangke seems to have been making them repeatedly for a while now (which is why, for example, I found 2015’s Mountains May Depart somewhat less powerful, just because the metaphors start to become a little frayed through overuse, or at least so it seems to me). That all said, I really do like The World, which uses a (real) Beijing theme park to get at his underlying themes of alienation of communication and the nature of globalised economies to marginalise and exploit people. There are several strands to this, not just Zhao Tao and her boyfriend, but some Russian workers who come to the park and find themselves in a precarious situation, and migrant workers from the country who are also made to work too hard to make ends meet with disastrous consequences. It didn’t always connect for me emotionally (which may be more on me than the film), but it’s a grand achievement nonetheless.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Chen Taisheng 成泰燊; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 21 May 2018.
三峡好人 Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006) [certificate 15]
Of the three films reviewed in this article, this 2006 piece — set against the background of the Three Gorges Dam construction project — may be my favourite of them all. Jia’s style tends towards a sort of abstract minimalism, often setting his characters against these vast industrial backgrounds that may as well be blue-screened in (and at one point there is even a little surrealist touch as the empty shell of a brutalist apartment block launches into the sky). Jia is in general very adept at making points about his country, and about the life of people in it, through these kinds of tableaux, where the comment often comes as much from where they are as from anything they’re seeing. There’s also a very precise and clinical feel to his filmmaking that makes use of the digital technology to make things just that little bit unreal, while always preserving a sense of his characters as people affected by forces beyond their control. In this case, the narrative itself is shared out amongst two characters (one of whom is his regular actor, and wife, Zhao Tao) searching for former partners they’ve lost touch with, at the same time as it’s sliced into segments taking their titles from food products encountered along the way, all of which is not immediately transparent but seems to fit into a narrative of displacement that echoes the infrastructure project taking place all around. I’d need to watch it again to make full sense of what it’s doing, but it’s a very impressive film.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Han Sanming 韩三明, Zhao Tao 赵涛; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 December 2018.
东 Dong (2006)
This shorter documentary companion piece to Still Life follows painter Liu Xiaodong, who is working in the same Three Gorges region that Jia shot his feature (as well as, later in the piece, in Thailand). It’s not quite your standard artist documentary as, although we hear a bit from Liu about his process and methods, as well as seeing him working on his large scale group portraits, it also follows the subjects quite a bit too. There are these long takes as the subjects — day labourers pulling down buildings in the Three Gorges region, as well as women working in Thailand (it’s never mentioned what they do, I don’t think, so I don’t want to leap to the conclusion that they’re sex workers, but that does seem implied) — as they sit around, talk or even move around town, and like the mood which Liu is capturing in his paintings (a sort of listless ennui, of sitting and waiting), they feel a little disconnected from their landscapes. Jia is very good (as his subject Liu is) at sustaining mood and atmosphere, and this does so nicely.
Director Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲, Zhangke, Chow Chi-sang and Tian Li; Starring Lu Xiaodong 刘小东; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 December 2018.
二十四城记 Er Shi Si Cheng Ji (24 City, 2008) [certificate U]
A documentary that also, somehow, isn’t. We hear from several generations of those working at “Factory 420”, and their children as well, but rendered by actors so convincingly that it’s not at all certain that these aren’t just filmed testimonies (except for the stillness and beautifully-composed framing that suggests something almost hyper-real). The old factory is being demolished for a new apartment complex (the “24 City” of the title), its name taken from a poem, and indeed poetry is a through-line to the film, punctuating the interviews, overlaid across interstitial scenes of people moving around the factory, little vignettes of a disappearing life. It’s a story, one imagines, of modern China in flux, its hardworking past (in this regard, recalling the extensive factory scenes in How Yukong Moved the Mountains, or in West of the Tracks) displaced by a capitalist aspirational future, the only constant being the poetry, and the fading memories.
Director Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Writers Jia and Zhai Yongming 翟永明; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲 and Wang Yu 王昱; Starring Joan Chen 陳沖, Lu Liping 吕丽萍, Zhao Tao 赵涛; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat (DVD), Pau, Sunday 6 May 2018.