Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhang-ke’s haunting follow-up to Platform, tracks various stages of underdevelopment. In an impoverished area of China, two disenchanted teenagers struggle with unemployment and raging libidos: Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) falls in love with Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), a singer-prostitute who promotes Mongolian King liquor for her boyfriend-pimp, and his friend Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) struggles against depression and his nagging mother. Shot on digital video and staged in real time, the film achieves an unprecedented level of docu-realism. Jia envisions a hopeful period of social transition despite the overwhelming sense of devastation (a group of Datong textile mill workers celebrate Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics and the riches it promises). Hope builds even as various apartment complexes fall to the ground; this remote, post-apocalyptic area of China could be the last place on Earth. Culture here is displaced into memory and commodified by an American pop ethos that infiltrates the provincial landscape via techno clubs and black markets. This threat is a pervasive (see Jia’s reference to America’s infiltration of Chinese airspace), functioning for the film’s depressed characters as an escape mechanism. In the end, the incessant Tarantino references are no different than Bin Bin’s fascination with the Monkey King and Qiao Qiao’s evocation of Taoist master Zhuangzi’s “Dreams of a Butterfly.” These are their points of departure. Despite the film’s overwhelming sadness, its better-than-here hopelessness pokes through. No doubt dreaming of better places, Xiao Ji rides his motorcycle out of the film’s suffocating milieu. Lighting crashes and his motorcycle breaks down on cue. Rather than head back to town, he hitches a ride from a stranger and perseveres.
By the looks of First Run’s Merci Pour Le Chocolat DVD, Image’s I’m Going Home disc, and now this New Yorker Video edition of Unknown Pleasures, you’d never know these excellent films were actually some of the better-looking films of their respective years. The bleak Unknown Pleasures was meant to evoke the desolation of a generation, but this hazy video transfer is inexcusably crummy. Edge enhancement is constant throughout, and though blacks are halfway decent, the noise throughout suggests the surface of dirty fish water. Comparatively, the Mandarin audio track is a godsend.
Just the film’s remarkable trailer.
If you don’t buy this DVD for the lousy video transfer, at least buy it for the critics quoted on the cover (wink, wink).