Sometimes called the most significant of the current generation of Chinese film directors, Jia Zhangke (b. 1970) enjoys the distinction of never having had some of his finest work commercially shown in his own country.
This would include the so-called “Hometown Trilogy,” here illuminatingly examined by Michael Berry in a new volume in the exemplary BFI Film Classics series. The three films compose Jia’s first feature-length productions: “Pickpocket” (aka “Xiao Wu”) was completed in 1997, “Platform” in 2000, and “Unknown Pleasures” in 2002.
The three, as Berry explains, form a trilogy not in the sense of any narrative continuity but in terms of their “shared aesthetic vision, social critique, and the common socio-geographic-historic terrain they traverse.”
All are laid in Jia’s home province of Shanxi, all are about “the deterioration of old communist ideals and the onslaught of global capitalism,” and all of them share the same cinematic impulse. They eschew the temptations of melodrama, historical extravaganza, comedy, and other commercial forms in favor of “a realist aesthetic.”
Within the small dramas that make up the narratives of these films, we watch the erosion on the ultra-realistic surface. In “Platform,” we see the decade of 1979-1989, not through the big historical incidents (implementation of the one-child policy to the times of Tiananmen Square) but through the subtle changes in popular culture: fashion, dance, TV, pop tunes.
Over the course of this long film (there is a three-hour version, the director himself prefers the 150-minute version) we witness the gradual evolution of pop fashion from the tunic jackets of the Mao era to the tank tops and jogging pants of the mid-1980s and on to later leather jackets and blue jeans.
We are thus shown not only the passage of time and politics but also the personal trajectories of the characters as they move through rebellion to, sometimes, responsibility. And we see the transitional phases, as when the young hero wears his homemade bell-bottoms along with his Mao jacket.
“Platform” is thus not only about simple transition, but also about the contradictions and awkwardness within this transition. Like that other great film about a theatrical troupe seen through history, Theo Angelopoulos’ “The Travelling Players,” the director’s attention is firmly upon the vagaries of character as seen through the meticulous mesh of his style.
Concerning this, Jia has explained its effect. “The long take [the lengthy shot taken from further away] helps maintain a distanced observation, respects the things that occur in a given time, allows events to unfold without interference, does not guide the gaze of the audience, and allows it to maintain its autonomy of observation.”
Among the results is not only extraordinarily good cinema but also an adverse commercial concern. Another of these results is that Jia became a really “underground” film director, his films banned (perhaps as much for style as for content) with the result that Chinese viewing (no matter how many prizes these films have won at film festivals abroad) is restricted to the bootleg DVD.
A further result is that, for viewing in Japan, only a few VHS versions were available. If readers now want the extraordinary experience of the trilogy itself, they had best order it, with English subtitles, from Amazon.
A final result, however, is that, perhaps realizing that banning is not good public relations, the Chinese movie bureaucracy has now welcomed Jia and sponsored “The World” (2004). This, too, is a critical film, though one with little of the aesthetic impact of the trilogy.
Later yet, the film people even allowed “Still Life,” Jia’s 2006 film that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, to be paraded in triumph around China.
The fact is that Jia remains a revolutionary director (revolutionary in the philosophical sense, not the communist). While his once equally revolutionary elders such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimu have now collapsed into government-approved entertainments about curses of golden flowers and houses of flying daggers, Jia has remained true to himself.
Here is an opportunity to read about his work in a masterfully laid out study and to order up the DVDs and see for yourself.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5