“Poetry is that which is worth translating. . . . Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go.”
—Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Beginning February 8th and continuing through most of the month, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is presenting a series of eleven films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke, alongside seventeen films from directors he is said to admire or who have influenced him. It’s an unusual program: more than a simple historical retrospective, it provides the audience different, sometimes contradictory, contexts through which to view the filmmaker’s work. Though it is far from comprehensive (how could it be?), the series offers a unique opportunity to measure Jia’s work against masters from the past and present, from European, Asian, and American traditions. This is entirely appropriate for a filmmaker whose work remains relentlessly focused on the present and recent past of his home country while at the same time evincing a genuine love of wider global culture, from Hong Kong action films to British and American pop music and cinema. Attempts to define Jia as one kind of filmmaker (minimalist, realist, surrealist, Maoist, formalist, ironist, traditionalist) inevitably fail, just as his films themselves resist easy classification (slow cinema musicals? neo-realist melodramas? social problem wuxias?) He’s all of these things and more, and what his films mean to a viewer depends as much on they context they bring to the screening as it does the film itself. Every act of interpretation is an act of translation, of transforming a work of art from a thing observed to a thing understood. The SFMoMA series provides plenty of lenses through which to examine Jia and his work, but they aren’t the only ones. Here are a few that I have found useful.
1. A Guy from Fenyang
Jia Zhangke was born in 1970 in the small city of Fenyang, in the Shanxi province in northern China’s coal-mining country. Fenyang and Shanxi occupy a central position in his films: most of them are set there and the ones that aren’t usually feature characters who are from there but have left for economic reasons. From his earliest films he has tended to use non-actors from among the local population to fill important roles, and he’s reused many of the same actors and crew members in film after film for decades. Major collaborators include: Wang Hongwei, an actor with whom Jia attended film school in Beijing; Yu Lik-wai, his cinematographer for all but his most recent feature; Zhang Yang, his masterful sound designer; Lim Giong, who scored all of Jia’s films but one from The World to Ash Is Purest White; and Zhao Tao, star of every one of his fiction features (and a couple of his documentaries) since Platform in 2000.
Most typical, though, of Jia’s close-knit approach to film production is his recurring use of his cousin, Han Sanming, a coal miner who Jia first cast in Platform (playing a young man named Sanming who takes a job as a coal miner), and then has reused again and again in parts large (he’s one of the two stars of Still Life) and small (brief cameos in A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart), always playing a miner named Sanming. It’s possible, though difficult, to see all these films taking place in the same world, the Sanming Cinematic Universe, with this one salt of the earth proletarian bringing an eerie sense of stolid calm and resolution to otherwise unmoored worlds.
In Jia’s own performances in his films, he serves the opposite purpose: in Xiao Wu, for example, he’s a catalyst for the protagonist’s ultimate destruction, bringing him back to earth just when he’d so lost himself in a romantic reverie that we’d almost forgotten what a rotten person he was and how much all his now-respectable friends dislike him. In Unknown Pleasures, Jia plays “Guy Singing on Street,” seen early in the film doing exactly that on two occasions—a premonition of the future for his doomed heroes, who too will become lost in their media-shaped, unfulfillable aspirations. In the later films, A Touch of Sin and the very fun short The Hedonists, Jia plays a cigar-chomping rich guy, a “Boss Jia” comically flaunting his success in the face of the poor, laboring heroes.
Always his films come back to Fenyang, no matter how unmoored they may become in Australian science-fiction or ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy or post-modern amusement parks, there is always a grounding in the ramshackle walls and concrete grayness of his hometown. He might be China’s Bruce Springsteen. In Yumen, a documentary about a Chinese town by the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s JP Sniadecki (co-directed with Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang), a young woman walks through a market in an unbroken long hand-held shot, listening to Springsteen’s“My Hometown” on her headphones. It’s the closest anyone has come to a counterfeit Jia Zhangke scene.
This is probably the label that most frequently gets attached to Jia, though I don’t find it all that useful. The SFMoMA series leans heavily in this direction, with two films firmly in the tradition (Rossellini’s Rome Open City and Antonioni’s Il grido) and one that proudly follows in its footsteps (Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy). Depending on your point of view you could probably throw in the series’ Three Sad Tigers (Raúl Ruiz) and Chan is Missing (Wayne Wang) as well, but they seem to me to be an example of something different.1 Jia’s films do show the influence of Rossellini and Antonioni, although it’s hard to say if that’s just because every even vaguely art-house film of the last 70 years has been influenced by 40s and 50s Italian cinema. You can see echoes of the split structure of Rome Open City in Jia’s later films, and the rambling worker narrative of Il grido is present in films like Still Life and A Touch of Sin. The most Antonionian element of Jia’s work though might be his use of architecture, especially the ancient walls of Fenyang, in his compositions (it turns out the walls were actually filmed in the neighboring town of Pingyao, Fenyang having torn down most of its walls when Jia was a child). The city walls are a vital element in the early films, providing a space for a comic interlude for two would-be lovers in Xiao Wu and framing the coming together and breaking apart of the lovers in Platform. They provide the stage for the finale of A Touch of Sin, reorienting the problems of the present in the traditions of the past, giving a firm foundation to social outrage while reminding us that injustice is nothing new. You can see echoes of Neo-Realism in Jia’s free-flowing camera work, non-professional actors speaking in non-standard dialects and accents, actual as opposed to studio settings, independent production methods, and focus on the problems of the poor and dispossessed rather than the bourgeois and elite. But from the very beginning there’s always been more to his work than simple reality.
The sound design of Xiao Wu is a marvel. The young pickpocket played by Wang Hongwei is surrounded by noise everywhere he goes in Fenyang: hounded by the sounds of traffic, construction, radios and televisions, official government announcements, bits of overheard conversations. The city is abuzz and he cannot escape from it. It’s not realistic, but it’s only a little bit off, such that you might not even notice. But it’s there unbalancing everything, increasing the sense of trapped paranoia that dogs the hero, a scoundrel who refuses to grow up and stop committing petty crimes and move on, like all his friends, into more respectable, bigger crimes. Later films will incorporate more obviously unreal devices: the use of animation in The World whenever the main characters communicate via text message; well, just everything about the setting of The World, a theme park in Beijing made up of recreations of landmarks from around the globe (the Pyramids, the Leaning Tower, the World Trade Center, et cetera), which I suppose are technically hyper-real along the lines of Baudrillard but let’s not split hairs; the UFOs playfully highlighting the alienness of the landscape in the forever altered Three Gorges region in Still Life, the green snake that crosses Zhao Tao’s path in A Touch of Skin before she becomes an avenging heroine straight out of wuxia literature; everything about the last act of Mountains May Depart. Realism itself cannot contain the contradictions of modern Chinese society: any culture that transforms this much, this quickly, is inevitably going to break apart at the seams, is bound to evince a kind of national craziness. Jia’s heroes, lost in the swirl of forces beyond their (or anyone’s) comprehension find themselves in an at times actively anti-real world.
The SFMoMA series includes two films by Robert Bresson, who like Jia embodies a little bit of realism along side a little bit of surrealism. Xiao Wu’s alternate title, Pickpocket, inspires the easy connection to Bresson’s film, though the two characters are in significant ways very different.2 Bresson’s pickpocket is a Dostoyevskian figure: he steals because he can and because other people aren’t really worth considering, until the end, when he miraculously transforms into a romantic figure. Jia’s pickpocket is more indebted to American nihilists like Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets: an agent of chaos whose apathy is driven as much by lack of imagination, an inability to adapt to a changing world, as anything else. A Man Escaped provides a model of sound design and narrative patience, but there’s nothing in Jia’s work that matches its procedural focus. Nor does Bresson’s unique approach to performance appear to have influenced Jia, who has instead found other means to emotionally invest his audience while highlighting the artificiality of filmed entertainment.
Jia emerged in the late 1990s, a time when the international festival circuit was abuzz with a new (or seemingly new) kind of filmmaking that came to be (inadequately) labelled as Asian Minimalism or Slow Cinema. Drawing on the New Taiwanese Cinema, these films tended to feature long, static takes shot in medium to long distance, eschewing camera movement, close-ups, and classical editing. Exemplary of this style were Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang and some of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s films. Each of the three major Asian directors to emerge in the late 90s, Jia along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo, made films in this style, though of them only Apichatpong continued to use it for more than a couple of years. Where Hong developed a wholly idiosyncratic use of the zoom, Jia early on took advantage of the freedom offered by digital technology to set his compositions in motion, gradually moving closer to his actors and bringing his editing more in line with classical norms. Platform is really the only minimalist movie he ever made, although the patient rhythms of the style would continue in Unknown Pleasures and Still Life. The former’s entropic structure, characters seemingly aimlessly circling around action before a final fall, echoes Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, while the latter’s dual stories of people lost in a landscape recall both Tsai and Apichatpong.
This kind of filmmaking is often said to take inspiration from the films of Yasujiro Ozu, whose Tokyo Story is playing in the SFMoMA series. Frankly, the connection is overblown: Ozu was far from a minimalist, as any one who bothers to count the edits in any given one of his films would realize. His complex and mathematical approach to framing, composition and editing is a world away from the realist and durational approaches to filmmaking. He has more cuts in single scenes than Tsai has in entire films. While Ozu’s films share with Jia and the Taiwanese directors a concern with the impacts of modernization on family life, there doesn’t otherwise seem to be much influence from one on the other. Hou famously hadn’t even seen any of Ozu’s films yet when people started suggesting in the mid-1980s that he was influenced by them.
6. New Taiwan Cinema
The New Taiwanese Cinema had more of an impact of Jia’s work than the simple affectations of style. Two of Hou’s films are represented at SFMoMA. The first, 1983’s Boys from Fengkuei, seems to have been especially inspirational for Jia, telling a story of young men from a small town moving into a big city, and all the alienation and wonder they find there. One of the film’s most famous shots, of a cityscape seen through the makeshift widescreen frame of an abandoned concrete structure, is borrowed throughout Jia’s filmography, and it has lost none of its potency. The other Hou film is Flowers of Shanghai, which is explicitly referenced in Jia’s documentary on that city, I Wish I Knew, but otherwise seems tangential to Jia’s work. Hou’s habit of building his films around the memories of his friends and collaborators (novelist and screenwriter Chu T’ien-wen chief among them, but also including Wu Nien-jen, Li Tien-lu, Jack Kao, Lim Giong and Shu Qi) finds its echo in The World, which Jia built around Zhao Tao’s stories of her friends who had actually worked as dancers at the real theme park in Beijing. But Edward Yang, with his relentless focus on the contradictions of a modernizing Taipei, is probably closer in spirit to Jia than Hou is.
7. Shanghai Cinema
If there’s one pocket of world cinema that needs to be brought into the mainstream of cinephile discourse, it’s probably Indian cinema. But if there’s another one, it’s the cinema that flourished in Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s. I very much need someone out there to organize a massive and comprehensive program of Shanghai movies so I can watch as many of them as I can and trick Danny into letting me write 8,000 words about them here at the Notebook. The SFMoMA series includes two Shanghai films, Street Angel, released in 1937 mere days before the Anti-Japanese War began in earnest, and Spring in a Small Town, the 1948 film that is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest of all Chinese-language films. While both films are excellent, it’s the latter that undoubtedly influenced Jia more, either specifically or by proxy due to its influence on later generations of Chinese filmmakers.
Street Angel, directed by Yuan Muzhi, is a semi-musical set among the urban poor, a boy and a girl who live in buildings on opposite sides of a narrow street, windows facing each other. The scenario is typical 30s melodrama, evincing a strong Frank Borzage vibe (it’s not, however, a remake of his Street Angel, though a different Borzage film, 7th Heaven, was remade in Hollywood in 1937), alongside sing-along musical performances (complete with a bouncing ball on the lyric subtitles), social-problem film dramatics (the refugee influx into the city has created unsustainable living conditions for all involved), and dense and shadowy images that at times recall Josef von Sternberg’s late 20s films like Docks of New York and Underworld. Street Angel was Yuan Muzhi’s second and final film as a director. After the war and the civil war that followed it, he worked higher up in the PRC’s film production system.
Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is a film that only grows in stature as time goes on. A domestic melodrama set in a dilapidated house in a post-war town, it’s a love triangle between a wistful wife, her melancholy and invalid husband, and a young doctor who comes to visit. With very little in the way of conventional dramatic action and long takes filmed in graceful panning and tracking movements, it prefigures much of the New Taiwanese Cinema as well as Fifth and Sixth Generation Chinese film. Interviewed in Jia’s I Wish I Knew, star Wei Wei explains the advice her director gave her in playing the film’s most heart-wrenching moments, in a line that could be the guiding principal of minimalist melodrama, “Inflamed emotions must be kept under control.” Watching it alongside Jia’s work was, for me, revelatory: his rhythms owe much more to Fei Mu than they do any of the European or Taiwanese directors whom to he’s so often compared. Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang remade Spring in a Small Town in 2002, and while his film is good, he doesn’t get the feel quite right. I think it’s because he’s slowed it down too much, in matching the stately self-seriousness of the minimalist style. Certain passages from Jia’s work seem closer to the original: the scenes between lovers in Platform, the Zhao Tao storyline in Still Life, the short film Cry Me a River, the meeting in the hotel room in the middle of Ash Is Purest White. It should be noted as well that, anticipating Antonioni and Jia, Fei Mu makes expert use of a city wall as compositional element and metaphorical structure.
8. Fifth Generation Film
An established organizing principle when talking about Mainland Chinese film is to sort it by generations. The Fifth Generation was the one which emerged in the mid-1980s, the first group of directors to have graduated from the Beijing Film Academy after the end of the Cultural Revolution. They followed both the Hong Kong New Wave and the New Taiwan Cinema, but were more successful than those filmmakers at finding a broad international audience. Two Fifth Generation films feature in the SFMoMA program: Yellow Earth and Farewell, My Concubine, both directed by Chen Kaige. Yellow Earth was the breakthrough, and remains among the movement’s best films. Shot in Shaanxi province (not to be confused with Jia’s Shanxi, which is next door), it mixes a kind of ethnographic documentary approach to the local folk culture with a propagandistic account of the freedom from feudalism offered by the Chinese Communist Party. The film is set in the 1940s, and was shot by Zhang Yimou, himself a few years away from his directorial debut, Red Sorghum (which stars Jiang Wen, who will become an important Sixth Generation director. His younger brother, Jiang Wu, stars in the first segment of A Touch of Sin).
At this early stage, the Fifth Generation films are focused on the life and culture of China’s vast rural populations (see also Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1986 The Horse Thief), shot with an off-hand immediacy and specific sense of location. But over the course of the next decade, their films became increasingly ornate, colorful and fabulous costume dramas that took American art-houses by storm in the early 1990s (well, at least relative to any previous Chinese films). Zhang Yimou was the more prolific and successful in this regard, but Chen’s Farewell, My Concubine was the most lauded, becoming the first, and thus far only, Chinese film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (which it shared with Jane Campion’s The Piano).
A glossy and sweeping epic tracing the lives of two opera actors as they drift through 20th Century Chinese history, Concubine is an old school Hollywood-style historical epic, for all the good and bad that implies. If you like elaborate costumes, this is the movie for you. If you like Leslie Cheung (and who doesn’t?) he’s pretty good here too, though I much prefer at least two of the other four films he made in 1993 (The Bride with White Hair and The Eagle-Shooting Heroes). It’s also a prime example of the kinds of films, the Cinema of Quality, that the next generation of Chinese directors would rebel against.
9. Sixth Generation
The next group of Chinese directors emerged in the 1990s. As opposed to the big, colorful productions of Zhang and Chen, they adopted a lo-fi, independent style that naturally followed realist and documentary aesthetics. Many were independent productions, made outside the PRC’s censorship system and therefore were officially banned and unable to be commercially shown in their home country, though they thrived on bootleg videos and DVDs. This is the case with all of Jia’s pre-2004 films; The World was the first one he made within the system. Only one of Jia’s contemporaries in this group are represented in the SFMoMA series, though you can spot Wang Xiaoshuai in a small role in Unknown Pleasures and Feng Xiaogang in Ash is Purest White.
Lou Ye’s Summer Palace is the lone representative, a romantic epic that stretches across the 80s and 90s, with the massacre at Tiananmen Square as a central reference point (which would earn Lou and his film a ban from the PRC). It’s not a great movie, Lou’s hand-held shaky-cam aesthetic tends to make me dizzy, but it did inspire one of Jia’s best short films, Cry Me a River, a perfect distillation of Summer Palace’s kind of generational romantic melodrama (once we were poor and in love and now we’re rich and unhappy) into twenty perfect minutes. It stars Zhao Tao and Wang Hongwei along side Summer Palace’s stars Hao Lei and Guo Xiaodong. It may or may not be inspired as well by the Justin Timberlake song.
Of all the Sixth Generation directors, Jiang Wen would have been the most interesting point of comparison, especially his 1994 debut In the Heat of the Sun, a coming-of-age tale set among a group of teens in the 1970s that gradually dissipates in a confusion of memory and present-day prosperity. It shares a lot of DNA with Platform, as well as Unknown Pleasures and Ash is Purest White, which all tend to dissolve in the end rather than properly conclude. Wang Bing would be the other major Sixth Generation director I would have included, as his epic and austere documentaries, and continued independence from the PRC film system, form a marked counterpoint to Jia and his work.
The documentary aspect of Jia’s films is there from his very earliest work, part and parcel of the neo-realist approach to capturing life as it is on the streets at the present moment. Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures are as much documentaries about Fenyang and its surrounding areas as they are anything else, just as Still Life is a documentary about the impacts of the Three Gorges Dam on a town that no longer exists. But for seven years in the middle of his career, from 2006 until 2013, Jia didn’t make a single fictional feature film but did direct four non-fiction ones, three of which are in the SFMoMA series (the fourth, Useless, is a fascinating film in its own right).
24 City is the best of them, the most conceptual of Jia’s films, finding in the story of a single factory in Chengdu the story of the rise and fall of socialism in China and its replacement by developer-driven capitalism, while at the same time undermining the way we think about non-fiction film by having some of his talking heads played by actors reciting anecdotes cribbed from interviews with actual people, included Zhao Tao (of course) and Joan Chen, who plays a woman named after a character Joan Chen played in a movie.
I Wish I Knew is less successful at telling the story of Shanghai in the 20th century. Though it too features a number of fascinating interviews, the all-pervasive melancholy of Lim Giong’s score and mopey images of Zhao Tao walking through the rainy modern city are overwrought. Dong is about the painter Liu Xiaodong, Jia’s friend and frequent artistic consultant. We watch him paint first on the set of Still Life (the Dong project actually came first: while Jia was there he decided to make a fiction film set around the ruined city) and then in Thailand. Liu is an affable enough figure, but even Jia seems to lose interest in the project for awhile, one afternoon simply taking off and following one of Liu’s models as she heads home and then out into the city.
11. Genre Filmmaker: Wuxia
We still, for some reason, tend to divide filmmakers into types: mainstream and art-house, prestige and genre, commercial and independent. It seems totally counter-productive, but we persist. Such a division is especially unhelpful when considering Jia Zhangke. If you seem him as a non-commercial director of esoteric art-house or international festival films, then certain elements of his films will strike you as baffling, non-serious, or even buffoonishly crass (see for example the general reaction to the much derided, but nonetheless wonderful final act of Mountains May Depart). If you see him as a mainstream commercial filmmaker, then the apparent aimlessness of Unknown Pleasures and Xiao Wu, or the patient rhythms of A Touch of Sin, or the dissipating conclusion of Ash Is Purest White, will seem perverse or even downright boring. The answer of course is that he’s both, and the international film distribution system doesn’t know what to do with filmmakers like that (a set which includes a great many prolific Asian filmmakers, from Tsui Hark and John Woo to Takeshi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa). Two such directors are included in the SFMoMA series, King Hu, whose wuxia A Touch of Zen inspired the English language title for A Touch of Sin, and Johnnie To, whose Election is a Triad movie about hypocrisy in Chinese organizational structures.
A Touch of Sin was the first fiction film Jia made after his sojourn into documentary, and it retains that form’s social problem impulse in that all four of its loosely connected stories are based on actual recent events. Jia’s casts these tales of modern alienation and violence in wuxia terms. Jiang Wu’s disillusioned miner protesting against the corruption in his village becomes a lone hero, following his own code of justice and righteousness, no matter the body count. Wang Baoqiang, a cold blooded killer, bank robber and purse snatcher, rides his motorcycle in and out of his family’s life like a wandering swordsman. Zhao Tao plays a worker at a massage parlor who is beaten by a wealthy client3 when she refuses to prostitute herself and then takes bloody revenge upon him, flashing a fruit knife like Lily Ho in Chor Yuen’s classic Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan.4 The final section is based on various suicides at Foxconn factories, a story of young people set adrift between corporations, alienated from their homes and families, despondently commodified into prostitution and assembly line work. It has something of the doomed romanticism of tragic stories like that of the Butterfly Lovers (filmed by Li Han-hsiang as The Love Eterne and by Tsui Hark as The Lovers). Two operas are referenced in the film. The first is based on a story from The Water Margin, the 16th century novel which helped establish the norms of wuxia fiction. The second comes at the film’s conclusion, when, back in Fenyang and standing again below the city’s wall, Zhao watches a performance of The Story of Sue San, an adaptation of which was the first film directed by King Hu.
12. Genre Filmmaker: Gangsters
Election’s connection to Jia’s work is more tenuous. It’s a very Hong Kong-specific film, sourced in the legends and history of the Triad criminal organizations that date their founding and rituals back to anti-Qing Dynasty resistance groups in southern China. The process by which leadership of the group is passed on is supposedly democratic, but in fact involves a brutal game of manipulation and violence (albeit completely without guns). It easy to see the connection between the sham of democracy that covers up the true levers of power, an argument which could be made just as easily about the recent history of United States as Hong Kong or the People’s Republic.
A better Hong Kong gangster connection to Jia though is in the work of John Woo, a filmmaker to whom Jia repeatedly refers. An early scene in Still Life shows a famous clip from A Better Tomorrow, while Sally Yeh’s “Drunk for Life,” the theme from The Killer, appears in at least three different Jia films, most memorably in Ash is Purest White, where it serves as a kind of aspirational anthem for its would-be wuxia/Triad heroes (just as a different Sally Yeh song, “Take Care,” serves a similar purpose in Mountains May Depart).5 Like Woo, Jia is disillusioned with modernity, repeatedly calling back to an idealized past that he knows full well never existed. Woo's heroes are idealists, living by a code only they believe in, just as Jia’s heroes are time and again stumped by and lost in a world they can’t understand.
13. Genre Filmmaker: Musicals
The biggest generic influence on Jia’s career, though, is the musical, represented at SFMoMA by only Street Angel. All of Jia’s films integrate music and dance in key ways, a tendency apparent in Xiao Wu but which really began with Platform and the beginning of his collaborations with Zhao Tao. Zhao was, like many a great Chinese actress before her, from Cheng Pei-pei and Kara Hui to Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, trained not as an actor but as a dancer. She attended the Beijing Dance Academy and was working as a teacher when Jia and his team asked to watch her class as part of the casting search for Platform. Much to her surprise, they offered her the part instead.6 In the best scene in Platform, she rises up from her boring desk job on a lonely night and dances beautifully, soulfully to Julie Sue’s “Shi Fou.” She plays a dancer again in Unknown Pleasures and The World, but their two most recent films offer both her finest performances and Jia’s most musical films to date.
Mountains May Depart opens with undoubtedly the most stirring opening of any film this decade: Zhao leading a group of Fenyang citizens (including the two men who love her) in a coordinated dance set to the Pet Shop Boys’ hit “Go West.” It’s infectious, liberating joy, an expression of unlimited possibility which the remainder of the film will slowly, but unsuccessfully, attempt to grind down. The song opens with the sound of waves crashing and seagulls squawking and that sound will form the structure of Jia’s narrative, along with the fact that Zhao’s given name, Tao (涛) can be translated as “great waves.” That’s the name of her character as well (Shen Tao), and moving her arms in simulation of a wave is an integral part of her “Go West” dance. The penultimate scene in the film finds her estranged son (with his Oedipal mother figure played by Sylvia Chang) staring into the sea, to the sound of waves and seagulls. All he remembers of his mother is her name “Tao. . . like waves.” Jia cuts back to Zhao, who has been absent for this whole third of the film, who mysteriously hears her son’s voice, then outside, in the undeveloped city, the song builds again and she dances. Mountains may depart, but great waves leave and return, rise and fall, build and crash, uniting east and west, past and future.
Ash Is Purest White has an even more complex relationship with its music, centered around five songs which repeat on the film’s soundtrack. Some of those repeats are for comic effect, such as the disco that only seems able to play “YMCA,” or with the ballroom dancers performing at the funeral of a local gang leader (which is as poignant as it is bizarrely funny). Another, the song Zhao hears performed first on the street and then in a theatre in the Three Gorges, is restorative, reaffirming her faith in herself and humanity at her lowest point.
The other two point to the way Zhao and her lover, the would-be Triad played by Liao Fan, see themselves, as heroic figures of the jianghu, the “rivers and lakes” land of wuxia fiction that exists parallel to but outside the bounds of normal society and morality (the film’s Chinese title translates as “Children of the Jianghu”). The first is the aforementioned Sally Yeh song from The Killer. The second is the first song heard in the movie, the Wong Fei-hung theme. It’s probably the most familiar tune in Hong Kong cinema, used for the folk hero played variously by Kwan Tak-hing (in dozens of serials in the 1950s and 60s), Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, among others. Ash opens with leftover footage from the production of Unknown Pleasures which, like the names of the two primary characters, serves to loosely link these two films7 as movies about characters obsessed with pop culture-derived visions of themselves and the disasters that befall them when reality doesn’t live up to their fictional ideals. Just as Mountains is linked to Platform in being stories about the perils of selling out your (musical) dreams for a life of bourgeois normalcy. The Wong Fei-hung theme is explicitly tied to Zhao’s character, while the Yeh song is tied to her boyfriend. But we only ever hear the melody to Zhao’s song in the beginning (it kicks into gear the first time she snaps her head around to the camera, a gesture she will repeat throughout the film and which serves as another of its structuring elements). After that, we only hear the initial drumbeats, an ominous, pounding sound, signaling doom. We hear it in moments of crisis, when she doesn’t know what will happen next. It’s the last sound we hear.
Finally, Jia has to been seen, at least somewhat, as a political figure. His position in relation to the Chinese state is peculiar. He began his career working outside the system and has made and continues to make films that reflect deeply the problems of present-day Chinese society. While not shying away from injustices both past and present, he has avoided directly confronting the PRC government. He’s positioned himself as a leading figure in Chinese film, launching his own film festival not far from Fenyang in the ancient city of Pingyao, with full government approval and support, in hopes of furthering his nation’s film culture, encouraging young filmmakers, and increasing ties between Chinese and Western film communities. He works in cooperation with the state censorship apparatus, and has been careful not to cross too many lines, for example withdrawing one of his films from a festival in Melbourne after it announced it would be showing a movie about Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer. This has, in some quarters, earned him the kind of ire that Zhang Yimou has received ever since Hero was first read as an apologia for totalitarianism (it isn’t, but Zhang’s subsequent work, up to and including the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, has done nothing to improve his reputation among pro-Chinese democracy activists. And anyway his reputation as an outsider figure was always overblown, a product perhaps of the arcane and opaque rules by which Chinese censorship works). It’s clear that Jia has chosen to compromise with the state for the sake of having his movies shown to the public in his home country. I don’t know that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, and I’m pretty sure that no one not currently living in a police state has any right to say that there is.
But that’s not to say that Jia’s films aren’t political. Of course they are. If there’s one thing that unites them all it’s a dedication to the struggles and hardships of the Chinese worker, usually but not always the coal miners of his home town and province. The failures of the PRC to provide for these men and women, in contravention to both socialist ideals and basic human decency, is apparent throughout Jia’s filmography. His films are about the working people of China, and he thinks they should therefore be able to see them.
At one point in Dong, Liu Xiaodong gives a kind of manifesto for his work that I suspect Jia agrees with wholeheartedly, for better or worse. He says, “Whatever will be will be. It’s all pointless anyway. So let’s just do whatever we feel up to. All I can do these days is paint. So I try to be creative and innovative. Do something with a certain feel.” And then he continues, “If you attempt to change anything with art, it would be laughable. Once in awhile they have a good time, that’s it. I’m getting by, but as long as I live I have to express myself. I use their bodies to portray them and to express some of my views. What’s more, I wish I could give them something through my art. It’s the dignity intrinsic to all people.”
On the other hand, the crime boss in Ash Is Purest White says, “There are only two things I care about: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing.” Sometimes, I think maybe that’s the true Jia Zhangke. I don’t know. There are lots of ways of looking at things.
"Jia Zhangke: Rhythms from Life" is showing February 4 – 24, 2019 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.