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Feet on the Ground: The Films of Jia Zhang-ke

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Feet on the Ground: The Films of Jia Zhang-ke

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Xiao Wu, a low-budget Chinese film that was never distributed in the United States. In 1997, few could have anticipated this work would usher in a new generation of Chinese filmmakers, or have guessed that director Jia Zhang-ke would become one of the world’s leading auteurs while still in his early thirties. Since then, he has made four feature films, most of which are masterpieces and none of which are failures. His many astonishing gifts notwithstanding, it has become easier with time to see why he has caught on with Western critics and enjoyed the kind of reputation no young American director of his generation has achieved.

At a time when Western curiosity about China continues to grow, he offers different images of the country than those found in the work of Fifth Generation directors of the ’80s and ’90s. Jia’s films historicize the present moment, and they do so without the visual sumptuousness that helped Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou’s period dramas break Chinese cinema onto the international scene. Where Chen and Zhang satisfied their audiences’ desire to see China reflected through exotic pageantry (à la Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor) and neorealist grit, Jia’s work fits perfectly into two trends of the current moment (or the recent past): (a) the critical privileging of a more ascetic aesthetics, as embodied by Bresson, Ozu, Kiarostami, and the Taiwanese New Wave, and (b) the Tarantino-fetish for pop culture and self-reference.

Maoist ideology has stigmatized artists and intellectuals for decades, insisting that art is bourgeois and corrupt if it does not educate the public in Communist ideals. Beginning with the Fifth Generation directors, the work of China’s most internationally renowned filmmakers has largely been suppressed in its native country by the censors. Jia has emerged at an interesting time in the evolution of public values, as the mainland audience continues to find avenues around such suppression and the government has slowly begun to liberalize. Still Life, which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, is his second film to be approved by the authorities, but his social commentary remains as pointed as ever, and perhaps even more damning of a government that turns a blind eye to the suffering it has caused in the name of economic progress.

Jia’s first three features (Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures) explored specific problems facing contemporary small-town China, but the depictions of societal growing pains were matched by a deeply empathetic view of youth’s uncertainties and aimlessness; the private space (however limited or illusory) in which young people amuse themselves, waste time, fall in love, and confront the future still existed onscreen, in some small way distinguishable from its socio-political context. The tragic undertones of this first string of masterworks derived from the sense that Jia’s characters were not fully conscious of the ways in which they were being cheated by the inexorability of time and by their limited options in society. But in 2004’s The World and particularly in Still Life, the encroachment of the public/political sphere on private/personal space becomes more apparently suffocating. The characters are older, worn down by time, and, concurrent with the despair of the undeceived, the movies themselves lack the spontaneity associated with youth. The mood of every frame and the purpose of every scene are dictated by the set of socio-political conditions Jia seeks to expose. This new level of obviousness is understandable partly because, in the modern world, Beijing and the Three Gorges Dam (the settings for The World and Still Life, respectively) carry with them built-in associations, epitomizing the extremes of China’s aspirations toward “progress,” and exhibiting the consequences of such progress on a grander scale than Jia’s native Fenyang could in the earlier films. But this obviousness also makes these new works more desirable and easily digestible on the international market, for those who want their Chinese cinema to complement their New York Times.

What has kept Jia’s eye so fresh and up-to-date in the past is the centrality of pop culture to the way his characters understand their identities. His use of music, in particular, is masterful, and distinct from the manner in which more manipulative or fashionable directors have deployed pop in the past. While George Lucas surrounded American Graffiti in a haze of ’50s rock-and-roll nostalgia, and while Wong Kar-wai continues to highlight the dreaminess of Western pop by attaching it to non-Western imagery, Jia’s relationship to pop culture is at once more complex, more realistic, and more heartbreaking. As a mainlander, his interest in pop (and the ways it delineates community, disseminates values, and normalizes individualistic emotions) is not limited to the colonizing power of American entertainment culture; it also extends to an envy of the more liberated Chinese societies (Taiwan and Hong Kong), and to the contemporary pop scene which has emerged on the mainland alongside the introduction of capitalist reforms.

In a country like the U.S., in which the existence of an entertainment industry looms so large in our everyday lives that it can’t but be taken for granted, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate the depth of emotion with which Jia has described growing up in a pop-less China: “We had no entertainment, no culture, no books at all,” he said in a 2003 interview. “We spent our nights sitting at home silently… After the ’80s, we started having tape players and cassette tapes. We were able to hear more popular music, about the lively things in our lives. You can imagine, in a small town, with no library, no theater, no concert hall, and no art gallery, how important popular music was to us.”

Jia’s carefully chosen soundtracks often feature the most prominent hits of a particular period as they are sung in moments of awkward intimacy, in scenes that sometimes amount to sublime collisions of Mandopop’s typically superficial commercialism and Jia’s own fiercely independent spirit. As a practical narrative tool, this strategy helps Chinese audiences locate the films in time and place. In many cases the songs are undistinguished, but at other times they are embodiments of the modern Chinese soul. Xiao Wu, for instance, plants itself firmly in the ’90s when a female character starts singing Faye Wong’s “Sky,” and Platform marks itself as a reminiscence of the ’80s when it includes Teresa Teng’s “Coffee and Wine” in two different scenes. Wong and Teng, incidentally, function as the best possible examples of Chinese pop possessing the transgressive powers by which we define and idealize rock-and-roll of the ’50s and ’60s: both of these female singers were globalized, outspoken, and artistically distinguished, but their most radical achievement was to make the romantic and erotic immediate again in a culture that had demonized those impulses as opiates against Communist consciousness. It would have been easy for Jia to use them merely as stimulants of the Chinese audience’s nostalgia. Instead, he establishes a rhyme between the unfulfilled romantic desire expressed in their karaoke classics and the restlessness of existing in a world of limited opportunities. As in life, anxieties stirred by unidentified socio-political forces are funneled into universal emotions that are somewhat easier to articulate.

When Jia’s not making an occasional satirical jab at the propagandist anthems that, for decades, constituted China’s only form of government-sanctioned music culture, he’s invoking the heartbroken love songs that restored forbidden “bourgeois” passions to the Chinese emotional landscape. This music, in the ears of a less sensitive director or another culture, would be condescended to as saccharine or dismissed as mere artifact, but Jia manages to position these songs at the emotional and spiritual heart of nearly all his films without ever surrendering his tightly controlled tone to their sentimentality. Jia shows us how pop music can on the one hand make our longings tangible and memorable, and on the other hand emphasize the ephemerality and triviality of our hopes and dreams.

In his first three features, this personal relationship with pop culture was made possible by characters who were still young enough to be inquisitive about love, who wanted their longings to live up to the ideals they found in the music. The effect ranged from soaring (as in Platform, when a woman hears a sorrowful ballad on the radio and begins to dance with almost frightening passion) to bitingly ironic (as when a would-be robber in Unknown Pleasures is humiliated into singing and garbles the lyrics to a song about love and heroism). Those earlier films were as much about the adolescent and young-adult discovery of (or performance of) love as they were about crime, bureaucracy, and social ills in small-town China. But where American audiences may have found themselves relating to those films the way they did to something like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Still Life announces its intention to be Jia’s most fully mature work, centering itself on two characters who have already grown up. Jia regulars Han Sanming and Zhao Tao are not playing the feckless criminals from Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures, nor the young performers from Platform; instead, they are adults personally acquainted with the effects of hard labor, migration, and lost love.

Everyone in this film seems to be holding onto their cellphones for dear life, but no amount of technology can change the fact that, in this world, human beings tend to vanish without a trace. While disappearances, separation, and reunion of family members occurred on the periphery of Jia’s previous films, now they constitute the central theme, in a two-stranded plot that follows Han and Zhao as they search for their long-lost spouses. Having experienced marriage, they are trying to negotiate their responsibility to that institution in a world that looks and feels post-apocalyptic. The vision of China, from this perspective, is drearier, less easily redeemed by humor, hope, and music; therefore, the proximity Jia allows himself to pop culture specifically and Chinese arts traditions in general is necessarily revised. With this film, Jia continues what The World started, shifting his gaze away from adolescence, and moving from autobiographical intimacy to artful, fictional, even mythical distance. This difference may be difficult to detect at first, since Jia has from the beginning been likened to Ozu and Hou for being tonally and aesthetically reserved. But where the earlier films felt miraculously cobbled together, Jia’s last two features give off a stronger sense of being constructed and interpreted beforehand.

Jia has always been closer to the ground than his Fifth Generation predecessors, and for that he seems to descend from a line of renegade heroes who gave voice to a generation scarred by the Tiananmen massacre, artists such as the poet Bei Dao and the rocker Cui Jian. With each successive film, Jia has provided a slightly different response to his social responsibility as an artist. Following the small scale of Xiao Wu, Platform presented itself with the confidence, observation, and epic ambition of a filmmaker taking the pulse of a nation. By Unknown Pleasures, it was clear that Jia knew his notoriety in the Chinese underground was having a profound impact on a national level; you can ascertain this from the cheeky, self-referential scene in which a man searches for DVDs of Jia’s work on the black market, and from how ostentatiously up-to-date the film is with its motif of national news ripped from the headlines. The next two films show Jia trying to grow into a different kind of artist, as if gaining government approval required him to shift from a provincial to a national point-of-view. Not only has he traded in the dusty setting of his Shanxi trilogy for the glitter and neon of Beijing (The World) and the epic wasteland of Fengjie (Still Life), but—now that he is working with a larger budget and a wider audience—he has also adopted a style that seems painstakingly aestheticized compared to the grainy, on-the-fly visuals and structures that made him famous. One example of this difference includes the misleading formal structures of The World and Still Life, which divide the films by chapter headings that don’t seem to indicate shifts in mood or foreshadow twists in the plot. Another example lies in the endings; where the final scenes of Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures seemed to reach outside the screen to invite, include, or implicate the viewer, the conclusions of Jia’s last two releases feel sealed-off in the characters’ minds.

Jia’s films arise from the tensions people feel between their selves and their communities, between their bodies and their environments. Still Life approaches this theme again, with an unsettling combination of modernity and tradition. Shot in the HD format, the film’s meditations on landscape, individual figures, and masses of human bodies are implicitly hooked into the trendy pop vernacular of digital video. But while these images look as immediate and present-tense as possible, they are also the most carefully conceived of Jia’s career. Their scale and framing often echo Chinese painting, an art form whose history carries philosophical and political implications that resonate at least a thousand years further into the past than the pop references of Jia’s previous films. This engagement with tradition could hardly have been avoided, since the location of the Three Gorges Dam—an area along the Yangtze River depicted in so many paintings, Li Bai poems, and pictures on Chinese currency—automatically connects the film to the most enduring sources of the nation’s artistic heritage.

Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s formidable cinematographer, has accomplished more than any other DP in building a place for digital video in our cinematic vocabulary. At the moment, he represents the greatest defense against those who claim the form is artistically illegitimate. Along with more high-profile examples, such as Dion Beebe’s work in Miami Vice and David Lynch’s in Inland Empire, Yu has freed digital cinematography from realism and literalness, finding ways that (like Chinese “mindscapes” of the Yuan dynasty) it can express the inner life of the artist. The peculiar blues, jade-greens, and blinding patches of white light in Still Life’s high-contrast palette feel otherworldly and ordinary at the same time, and could not have been achieved on any other format. Shooting a legendary landscape with the most current technology, Yu seems to directly answer the old masters (whose work was held in contempt during the Cultural Revolution), and the audience experiences the kind of disorienting anachronism that emerges when modernity is carelessly thrown on top of the ruins of an ancient civilization. Jia recognizes that, in building the Three Gorges Dam, one of the Chinese government’s primary interests is in creating a spectacle. Accordingly, this is his most visually spectacular film. But Jia counteracts the beauty of natural scenery with the dust and dirt of an environment constantly being destroyed and reconstructed. Instead of the poems and calligraphic texts found along the sides of Chinese scrolls, this landscape is framed by crude signs that mark temporary buildings or announce the rising water level in the dam. Timelessness can no longer be taken for granted. The irony of the World Park simulacra in Jia’s previous film may have been too feeble, obvious, or clichéd a knock at globalization, but in Still Life, the recognition of that same disjointedness of experience is devastating: no film in recent memory has created as powerful a vision of a culture folding in on itself.

In comparison to the characters in Zhang or Chen’s films, many of whom are built with the fixed personalities of Chinese theatrical role types, Jia’s protagonists feel amorphous and inscrutable. Next to the chameleon-like work of an actress like Zhao Tao, Gong Li’s valiant women look increasingly similar to Bette Davis or Scarlett O’Hara. The question of how Jia’s enigmatic human figures are supposed to hold up against such overpowering forces is complicated by both the deterioration of the landscape (whose ugliness makes us seek human faces to latch onto) and the crowding of an overpopulated nation (which makes it difficult to build personal connections to individual characters). Jia invokes one of the central themes in his oeuvre, calling us to ask what the significance of one life can be in a society like modern China. His camera has never been less anchored by human activity, an attitude he adopts when he opens the film panning and circling around masses of ordinary people, as if in search of a subject (or as if any old subject will do). Even when he settles on Han and Zhao, he is constantly distracted, muffling the melodrama of their situations and turning his gaze toward other conversations, characters, and scenery. The result is a view not of lives moving through time (as Platform was) but of a preordained condition that cannot be escaped.

Jia knows that we often understand the world not by articulating our ideals and values, but rather by conferring meaning upon a set of widely shared images and artifacts. In The World, literacy in global cultures stalls at the level of instantly recognizable structures, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian pyramids. In Still Life, communication is fostered through the use of symbols instead of words: a group of workers speak of their hometowns using the landscapes on RMB notes as visual aids; two men build a friendship off of the ideas of masculinity and brotherliness found in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow; and a boy floats in from time to time to sing love ballads, as if to remind his elders what passion feels like unfettered.

But people reach a point at which shared culture (both high and low, ancient and contemporary) fails to heal or redeem, and that is where imagination must take over. Jia’s past two films have perplexed some viewers by employing flights of fancy and imagination that few would have expected from such a realist. The World dramatizes the impossible, interrupting its live-action scenes with colorful animated interludes and, in its final moments, giving the last word to the voices of the dead.

Still Life’s characters exercise an ambiguous form of mental agency by dreaming up symbols and allegories in their landscape. The world has offered them a Godot-like trap, and they are forced to imagine themselves into existence. The surrealist in Jia is full of both hope and pessimism, and seems to be arguing: If thousands of years of tradition can be degraded in the span of a few decades, then the invasion of UFOs might be a credible occurrence as well; if coal miners can hold onto their faith in a narrow survival, then the film can end with a man walking gracefully along a tightrope above a rocky terrain. Still Life completes Jia’s transcendence of cinéma vérité and pop-dependence by accommodating the spiritual and the absurd (though, for him, the two might be one and the same). In the most remarkable career in modern Chinese cinema, he continues to find new answers to the question of how an artist should express the absurdity, banality, and sincerity of humans striving against impossible odds. Like his characters, he risks madness to maintain his sense of what is possible, without ever allowing his feet to leave the ground.

Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.