It’s been 10 years since Xiao Wu announced Jia Zhang-ke as one of Chinese cinema’s most exciting new talents, introducing a ground-level view of China both streetwise and lyrical. Jia’s open, observant cinema has always been driven—and occasionally undermined—by his unconcealed desire to speak on behalf of his generation as they contend with such headline issues as globalization, commodity culture, migrant labor, and alienation. As much as these preoccupations risk making Jia’s films resemble newspaper articles on celluloid (The World being the prime example; it even had comics!), they are inseparable to making his work compelling as he perpetually approaches the problem of how to make these issues come alive cinematically. Useless, the second part of a planned trilogy on Chinese artists (the first, Dong, followed a painter), focuses nominally on haute couture designer Ma Ke as she unveils a new fashion line, but expands in unexpected ways to become a haunting exploration on the many meanings and purposes of clothing in human life.
The film opens with a long, nearly wordless sequence in a southern Chinese factory that invites comparison to a similar opening in the documentary Manufactured Landscapes. However, instead of making geometric formations out of factory assembly lines as found in that film, Jia zooms in to capture intimate close-ups of the workers as they sweat over an endless array of fabrics, cuts, and stitches. Their benumbed expressions elide into more glamorous images of Ma Ke in her trendy Shanghai boutique as she laments how industrialized labor has stolen the soul from Chinese fashion: “It is absurd that China is the largest exporter of clothes in the world and doesn’t have any well-known brand.” Her solution is the introduction of a new brand, Useless, featuring hand-made clothes which she infuses with “personal histories” (including burying them in dirt). Jia captures the line’s unveiling at Paris Fashion Week (the first footage Jia has ever shot outside China), in a sequence that recalls the absurd la dolce vita of vintage Fellini, only now the Chinese have a seat at the decadent table.
At this point it’s a challenge to locate Jia’s take on all this useless beauty; while his camera (shot brilliantly on HD by Jia stalwart Yu Lik Wai) is laudably objective, it teeters toward complicity, as if he’s reduced to doing globetrotting glamour bios for the Chinese version of E! But then the film slips into its final, most mysterious and alluring third. Jia follows Ma Ke driving in the countryside (specifically, Jia’s northern hometown of Fenyang), where she claims to find inspiration for her authentic designs. Cut to her car passing a peasant by the roadside, who is on his way to getting his trousers stitched by the local tailor. The tailor can barely stay in business due to the low cost of mass-produced clothing. Another tailor has become a coal miner but speaks whimsically about designing beautiful fashions for his wife.
By this point the film reveals itself as a beguiling blend of documentary interviews and staged action portraits of locals carrying out their daily affairs, shot with nothing less than loving attention. With Useless, Jia’s approach to his social agenda achieves new levels of dexterity, being less obtrusive in announcing its intentions than in Unknown Pleasures or The World. Light on its feet without being lightweight, Useless is a shape-shifting work that overturns expectations at every turn and leaves behind an open-ended consideration of value—of clothing, of human labor, of human life.