An Interview with Jia Zhangke

By Kraicer, Shelly | CineAction, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

An Interview with Jia Zhangke


Kraicer, Shelly, CineAction


With his second feature film Platform [Zhantai, 2000], Chinese director Jia Zhangke established himself as the leading filmmaker of his generation in the People's Republic of China. Born in 1970 in a small town in Shanxi Province, Jia attended the literature department of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy (training ground for Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers who achieved international success in the late 1980s and 19905). After a prize-winning short film, Xiao Shan/Going Home (1996), Jia directed his first feature Xiao Wu (1997), which won a clutch of prizes on the festival circuit (Vancouver, Nantes, Berlin, Pusan). Set in Fenyang, the ultra-low budget film follows the story of a desultory pickpocket whose half-hearted attempts at friendship, petty thievery, and romance all lead nowhere, absolutely nowhere. He is shown, in the film's striking final image, humiliated, squatting on the ground while chained by the town's head cop to a pole in the main square, as the tow nspeople gather round to peer, curious and bemused.

Xiao Wu heralded the arrival of a major new voice among China's "sixth generation" of filmmakers, who began their careers after the June 4, 1989 protest movement (they include Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and He Jianjun). Shunning the lushly photographed rural past of the famed "fifth generation" (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang et al.), these younger filmmakers seek to depict a rougher, more gritty reality. Using low budgets, they film typically urban stories of alienated youth independently of the major Chinese film studios, and outside the official purview of government surveillance. These "underground," unauthorized films have never sought, and never received, official permission to film or to screen in their own country.

Platform, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 and subsequently screened at festivals around the world, achieved unprecedented critical and commercial success. Heralded by Chinese and western critics as one of the greatest Chinese films of the century, it even managed to secure a limited commercial release in Canada, as well in Europe and Japan, whose distribution systems are much more friendly to Chinese art films. At 195 minutes long (later cut down for commercial release to 155 minutes), Platform announces its ambition with its near-epic proportions. But it is a uniquely miniature epic, 30 examining changes in the daily lives of four members of a troupe of performers during the first decade of China's opening up to the west (the Deng Xiaoping era), from 1979 to 1991.

Starting out as a post-Maoist propaganda band, the troupe privatizes in the mid-1980s and quickly morphs into a shrill, unconvincingly glossy simulacrum of what to rural Chinese eyes might constitute a pop group, the self-styled "All-Stars Rock'n Breakdance Electronic Band". As contemporary music, hairstyles, clothes, and fashions seep into China (and into Jia's camera range), we watch the troupe's members, especially harmonica player turned punk guitarist Cui Mingliang and dancer Yin Ruijuan try to struggle with social change more revolutionary than Mao's. Platform is also an extended love story, of sorts: Mingliang and Ruijuan start out in something like a relationship, which falls apart as he goes on the road with the band and she stays home. On his return, years later, they find each other, again.

Jia Zhangke keeps his focus purely local, and his resolution precisely fine-grained. Historical change is alluded to, implied by off screen events, suggested by telling absences. His characters' inchoate, barely expressible yearnings stay in the foreground; as they find themselves with more and more "freedom", their happiness grows more and more elusive, sometimes visible, off in the distance or the imagination, always just out of reach. In the words of the 1980s hit song Zhantai that give the film its Chinese title:

The long and empty platform
The wait seems never-ending
The long wagons are carrying my short-lived love
The long and empty platform
Lonely, we can only wait
All my love is out-bound
Nothing on the in-bound train
My heart waits, waits forever. … 

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