Walter Salles’s recent films feature the recurring figure of a peripatetic explorer with an acute awareness of the passing of time and a corresponding disposition of wistfulness. This archetype is rooted in the Brazilian filmmaker’s source material (he adapted Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the defining literary work of introspective American travel, and made The Motorcycle Diaries with the exploratory, pre-revolutionary years of Che Guevara as inspiration), but it’s clearly one that interests him beyond the mere continuation of a certain tradition in storytelling, accounting for the sobriety of tone and sometimes unkempt and episodic cadence of these films.
In the case of A Guy from Fenyang, Salles’s portrait of world-class filmmaker Jia Zhange-ke, this recurring protagonist has been migrated over to the documentary format without a hitch. In his unflashy late-winter uniform of black-hooded coat and blue jeans, the Chinese director is a modest presence anchoring the center of Salles’s roving, reactive frames. Early on, flashing a face-filling smile that emerges refreshingly often for a director of slow-going contemplations of national identity, Jia delivers a soundbite that doubles as a manifesto for Salles’s own cinema and effectively aligns the directors as kindred spirits, however successfully one considers them on their respective terms. “It is hard to prevent change,” Jia concedes, “practically impossible. What I can do is record everything in my films.”
Guided loosely by a chronological tour through Jia’s oeuvre, the documentary attempts to record everything. It watches as Jia visits his childhood home and reunites with family and friends, accompanies him on reflective visits to old shooting locations, sits in on a Q&A about his work in a college auditorium, wanders with him through exquisitely run-down Northern Chinese villages, and observes from a respectful distance as he shares intimate conversation with close associates. Nothing seems too mundane to include, and anything is fodder for associative cuts to clips from the Jia gallery.
In the blighted canon of documentaries about directors, A Guy from Fenyang has nothing of the hagiographical cheerleading or predetermined talking-head baton passing of something like Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. If anything, Salles seems to take a cue or two from Gabe Klinger’s excellent Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, another film bonded tightly to the leisurely thought processes of its subjects, and one equally unbothered to let the work in question play out at length and stand on its own.
Due to this editorial patience and attentiveness, Salles allows his film to organically shape-shift according to the resonances produced by any given film clip. A shot from The World leads to Jia pontificating on the Beijing World Park and the ways in which its schizophrenic layout reflects the isolation of Internet culture. The inclusion of a lengthy pan of the Three Gorges Dam from Still Life in its entirety prompts a brief stop-in with Jia’s sound designer Zhang Yang and an foray into technical discussion. And when images from Platform of non-actors milling about segue into the topic of Jia’s casting predilections, the train of thought leads right to the director’s discovery of Zhao Tao, which in turn allows the actress to materialize as an interview subject (though the nature of their marriage is one of the film’s conspicuous and odd elisions).
By letting the film take form through these seemingly fortuitous daisy chains of associations, Salles reinforces the impression of Jia’s art as emerging fluidly from the vagaries of his own life and socioeconomic position. Case in point: Jia admits that Still Life wouldn’t have existed without the prior documentary Dong, and that several scenes in Unknown Pleasures are marked, to dramatic detriment, by stubborn personal fixations.
Somewhere along the way, A Guy from Fenyang drifts into deep sadness, with Jia reflecting on his father’s death from cancer and his ambivalent relationship to the man (one perhaps brought to bear on Mountains May Depart), even momentarily pondering a retirement from filmmaking. But in the spirit of Jia’s toothy beam and his ever-forward-thinking body of work, Salles allows himself one jarring editorial jolt in the interest of closing things out on a high note: a delightful hard cut to Jia getting plastered with friends at a restaurant, a reminder of the common man within the solemn artistic pioneer.