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Jia Zhang Ke (#110 of 21)

Locarno Film Festival 2018 Ray & Liz, M, & Menocchio

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Locarno Film Festival 2018: Ray & Liz, M, & Menocchio

Locarno Film Festival

Locarno Film Festival 2018: Ray & Liz, M, & Menocchio

During my brief stint at Locarno, I managed to catch 10 of the 15 films selected for this year’s international competition. My favorite was Ray & Liz, British artist Richard Billingham’s remarkably assured autobiographical debut feature. Billingham rose to prominence as a photographer with his 1996 monograph Ray’s a Laugh, inspired by his impoverished upbringing on the outskirts of Birmingham and lauded for its unflinching portraits of his alcoholic father and sedentary, heavily tattooed mother. With this film, he reaches further into the dark recesses of his childhood to deliver a richly evocative portrait of working-class life in the British Midlands.

Cannes Film Festival 2015 Mountains May Depart

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Cannes Film Festival 2015: Mountains May Depart
Cannes Film Festival 2015: Mountains May Depart

The one thing to remain unchanged after being flushed through the tripartite structure of Jia Zhang-ke’s flawed, fascinating Mountains May Depart isn’t what you might expect: Time will not wither the Pet Shop Boys, whose fittingly titled “Go West” can still apparently unleash the same carefree enthusiasm when the film opens in 1999 as when it closes in 2025. This knowingly melodramatic look at the past, present, and possible future of China is uneven, moving, and ultimately hard to pin down, its seeming simplicity soon blooming into an enigmatic complexity which harnesses the emotional to address the global.

The film opens just before the turn of the century, where colors are bright and the mood is one of optimism, even as the boxy aspect ratio suggests that life isn’t free of restriction. Like her country, Tao (Jia’s perpetually engaging muse Zhao Tao) is bursting with life and wanting to push at boundaries, the most pressing being those imposed by her two friends, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), both of whom are interested in her and are continually pressing her to plump for one of them. As this love triangle unfolds in unusually classic fashion, references to the timeframe abound: talk of Macao being returned to the Chinese, coal mines being sold off at rock-bottom prices, the great sound quality of combined CD and cassette players. Tao’s two suitors clash with such vigor that she’s forced to make a decision, gifting one a wife and eventually a child and leading the other into self-imposed exile.

Berlinale 2015 Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang and Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands

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Berlinale 2015: Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang and Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands
Berlinale 2015: Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang and Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands

It’s perhaps only natural that a film festival as wide-ranging as the Berlinale would include a few documentaries about filmmakers, and there are two excellent ones this year as part of the Forum sidebar. One is Walter Salles’s Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang, a portrait of the great Chinese filmmaker mostly in his own words. Much of the doc follows Jia as he wanders around various Chinese towns that are featured in his films, reminiscing both about his own past and about the making of his work. Occasionally, he’s accompanied in his wanderings by some of his actors: Wang Hongwei, his lead in 1997’s Xiao Wu and 2000’s Platform, follows Jia as he walks around in his hometown of Fenyang; later, Han Sanming does the accompanying honors as Jia explores Fengjie, the village along the Yangtze River that is prominently featured in his 2006 film Still Life. (Interestingly, Jia’s frequent leading lady and now-wife, Zhao Tao, is seen only in isolated interviews, not alongside her husband—though, considering how personal Zhao’s own recollections are, perhaps this strategy makes a certain sense.)

Cannes Film Festival 2013 Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin

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Cannes Film Festival 2013: A Touch of Sin Review

Cannes Film Festival

Cannes Film Festival 2013: A Touch of Sin Review

From the opening moments of Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, something strange is afoot—and not just the unexpected flourish of violence which punctuates the first scene. The opening titles announce the film as a co-production between Jia’s Xstream Pictures and the Shanghai Film Group, marking this as the Chinese iconoclast’s first studio film in a career of independent productions. Prior to his great 2004 film The World, his work wasn’t sanctioned by the Chinese government, so pointed was the critique of his homeland. Since that time, Jia has spent time working in both the documentary form (Dong; I Wish I Knew) and through something approaching both documentary and narrative cinema (Still Life; 24 City), effectively—almost imperceptibly—combining devices from each in an effort at constructing an altogether new hybrid. In some ways, then, A Touch of Sin feels like the film many may have expected to follow something like The World. In every other conceivable way, however, Jia’s latest represents new, uncharted stylistic frontier, one littered gunplay, knife fights—even an explosion.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Three Sisters

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Three Sisters</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Three Sisters</em>

Without a passionate sect of socially conscious filmmakers, entire cultures have threatened to be misperceived or, worse yet, completely ignored. Asia in particular seems to be painted in largely ignorant brushstrokes, as countries, provinces, even villages are amassed as one homogenous people. Thankfully, the recent work of a growing contingent of independent, politically minded directors have gone some way toward illuminating various marginalized subcultures. Documentarian Wang Bing stands near the forefront of this movement (a company which includes likeminded experimentalists such as Zhao Liang, Liu Jiayin, and Jia Zhang-ke), as his commitment to realism and uncompromising methods of presentation (if you’re unfamiliar, Wang makes looong films) have slowly endeared him as a fixture of the festival circuit.

Wang’s latest nonfiction excavation, Three Sisters, took him to a remote village in Yunnan, an otherwise sizable province located in southwest China. Dwarfed by mountains and sparsely populated, the village is secluded but vital to its residents, who eek out existences as manual laborers but are rarely, despite their best efforts, afforded the opportunity to leave for greener pastures. The title is both literal and symbolic. Wang fixes his gaze on many residents, both young and old, of the village, but he continually returns to one family and their three young daughters, all under the age of 10, but who have already endured a lifetime of labor. Early scenes capture the girls willingly helping their elders maintain the farmland and coral the various animals that their collective livelihood hinges on. These three daughters, then, are in a sense every daughter—every child who’s born into this cycle, which quickly reveals itself as cyclical and potentially never-ending.