Magazine article Artforum International

World Apart: J. Hoberman on the Films of Jia Zhangke

Magazine article Artforum International

World Apart: J. Hoberman on the Films of Jia Zhangke

Article excerpt

In Chinese society today there are a lot of moments where what's going
on could be called a show.
--Jia Zhangke, interview with Valerie Jaffee, in Senses of Cinema,
July-Sept. 2004

Milieu is everything in the assured, almost ethnographic work of Jia Zhangke, and with The World, China's leading independent filmmaker--make that China's leading filmmaker--emerges from the underground only to enter an officially sanctioned virtual reality. Coproduced by the state-run Shanghai Film Studio, Jia's latest movie (which made its US debut last October at the New York Film Festival and arrives in theaters this July) is set largely within the confines of that elaborately themed environment known as Beijing World Park.

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By contrast to this rigorously controlled zone, filled with more than one hundred scale models of the world's most famous buildings, the writer-director's three previous features framed the bewildering social landscape created by the world's fastest-growing economy. Jia's territory was scarred, if not convulsed, by the shift from collectivist state to individualistic market rule and populated mainly with disaffected young people, small-time hustlers, layabouts, and would-be entertainers. Expressions of China's here and now, Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000), and Unknown Pleasures (2002) were hailed at international festivals but could be seen in China only at "restricted" university screenings or on pirated DVDs.

Shot by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, Jia's first features share a strong visual style, a powerful set of concerns, and a vivid sense of place--all three were filmed in dusty, inland Shanxi Province, where the director's cosmopolitan parents were sent during the Cultural Revolution and where he was born in 1970. Dislocation is Jia's heritage as well as his theme. With their long takes and contemplative middle shots, his movies traffic in visceral defamiliarization. The camera may be fixed but the world is flux, governed by mysterious forces well beyond his characters' comprehension.

Once a professional break-dancer (his technique picked up from the 1984 American movie Breakin') and later a painter, Jia entered film production in opposition to the abstract period pieces produced by Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and other members of the so-called Fifth Generation: "After four years of watching Chinese films, I still hadn't seen a single one that had anything to do with the reality that I knew," he remarked in an interview two years ago. Along with Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Lou Ye, Jia belongs to a "Sixth Generation" that attracted attention in the mid-'90s with their unofficial (privately financed), low-budget productions.

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These directors typically made contemporary youth stories in urban settings. Some of these were banned, save for cineclub screenings, but most became available on DVD--and nearly all were shown at film festivals abroad. Jia, however, was also something of a regionalist. His first feature, Xiao Wu (also known, in tribute to Robert Bresson, as Pickpocket), is a remarkable, semidocumentary immersion in backwater urban low-life in which a supremely diffident thief from Fenyang fails to adapt to China's liberalizing economy.

Jia's empathetic evocation of a hometown loser was followed three years later by an ambitious generational portrait. Elliptical yet concrete, Platform is a superbly detached three-hour epic which, spanning the 1980s, filters that decade through the mutation of the propaganda-performing Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the equally cheesy All-Star Rock and Break-Dance Electronic Band. Again, Jia shows his concern for the economically unmoored, as such itinerant troupes are the lowest class of Chinese cultural workers. Played out in a series of unheated factory halls and outdoor courtyards, Platform projects an environment that is at once dreary and exotic, vast and imprisoning. …

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