NOTE: This is not a ranked list. This is merely a listing of the films of Jia’s that I have seen, and a few comments about each.
Jia Zhangke is, to me and many others, an almost endlessly fascinating director, one who charts the growth and progress in China in virtually every film – that growth, though, not always being the best thing for the country. He has stated that he cares only what the Chinese think of his films, and that, if they work for the people of China, he has, essentially, done his job. I believe it’s likely that he succeeds on this front, but that he has also enlightened the rest of his viewership, as well. Through his works, we can often find insight into our own lives, as well as insight to a country that is not often shown in such truth and depth.
Xiao Wu – Jia’s first feature is quite the remarkable one, with one of the best, albeit saddest, endings I’ve seen in a film in a long time. The story follows Xiao Wu, a pickpocket who thrives on stealing other peoples’ money (although this film is not about pickpocketing, for sure). He goes so far as to steal from one man, and then turn around and give the money away as a gift to another – only in that way can he give what he felt is deserved. I found the film rather fantastic as the young man goes through different tribulations, dealing with the police, his family, and a girl he falls in love with; the scenes in which he’s under the spell of the girl, in which he is in love, adds much to the sadness and the poignancy of the ending. Oh what a joy it was to behold this film. It was one I had wanted to see for some time, but which, for whatever reason, I had not decided to watch (sheer laziness, I’m assuming). I believe that anyone who has the ability to watch this should see it as quickly as possible.
Platform – Cited by some critics as the best film of this past decade, Platform follows a troupe of actors as they make their way across Xanshi province during a period of ten years (about ’79 to ’89). The film depicts the relationships between many of the participants in the troupe, and the changes that time, and the cultural revolution going on in China at that point, make on each individual. I must admit that I was not in the most desirable of states when I watched it (it is roughly two and a half hours, and I started it at one in the morning), and that, as told to me, and as I assumed on my own, it deserves another watch, if not several more. That being said, I was still absorbed by the rawness of the film, with each performance contributing to this new experience that I had never before witnessed. The camera captured this world so beautifully. The scene in which the truck is stopped and the troupe just sits in the middle of nowhere is a real treasure.
Unknown Pleasures – This was the first film by Jia that I saw. I didn’t know much what to expect, although I had heard that he was highly revered by many. As I put the film on, I was immediately struck by the camera, and the way the film approached its characters. These were not cardboard cutouts standing in for human beings, but real characters with real goals who wanted more out of life than what their seemingly dead-end town would give them. The film follows two teenage boys, and their desire for a famous spokesperson who comes into the town and performs a little jingle with a crew of a few, selling their product. The boys push themselves into a world that they do not fully understand, and, by the end, things have turned awfully sour for them. It is a fascinating portrait of a kind of place that I, myself, have never really witnessed – sure, I’ve been in dead-end towns before, places that aren’t going anywhere, and nor are the people, but I have, thankfully, been able to escape. For these youths, there is no escape – for these youths, their lives were over before they began.
The World – Jia’s first film to really move out of the Xanshi Province, The World takes place in the very modern park that is The World, located in Beijing. Jia has stated that he had been living in Beijing for some time, and he wanted to capture that kind of modern lifestyle. The story revolves around those who work at the park – their relations with each other, and their livelihoods. It is interesting to note that, while the film revolves around people living in a much bigger place, they seem just as cut off from normal society as his characters in Unknown Pleasures, ready to get away from The World so that they can really live. This film, though, is (in my opinion, anyway) not as great as some of his others. While I think it is still fascinating to watch, I think too that it loses steam before it ought to, although the ending is painfully poignant in its evocation of the struggle with society. In any case, it is still a film to seek out, because it is, first of all, incredibly beautiful to look at, and because the solemn tone throughout the entirety of the picture is still (even when the picture seems to be drooping a little bit) quite fascinating to watch.
Still Life – This is one of the most beautiful films ever shot, in my eyes. What a wonder to behold. It was one of the first Jia films that I wanted to see (apart from 24 City), and it is one of the ones that sticks closest to my heart. The story of a people adrift in life as their homes are being torn down to make way for the flooding due to the Three Gorges Dam is one of the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Jia stated that, when he was shooting his documentary, Dong, in this city, he realized that he had to capture everything that was going on here, because the place would be under water within a month, or so. He quickly shot the film as the demolition of the city was taking place, and, in that fervor, he created something that is profoundly real, something that should touch anyone’s heart. The fact that this story of the city is coupled with two other stories of lost people only adds to the grand meaning that Jia is trying to approach, and that he gets across quite clearly, I might add. Without a doubt, this is another great film.
Dong – I watched this documentary by Jia right after finishing Still Life; with everything fresh in my mind from the previous film, this movie about an artist who travels across Asia painting large murals of people suddenly gave Still Life another dimension than I would have noticed otherwise. From Dong, Jia took pieces of film that had been shot and spliced them into the narrative of his Still Life, while writing and creating the rest of it as he went along. In that, Dong is one of the most perfect companion pieces of any film I’ve ever seen. With that said, of course, the documentary is very good on its own, too, as it chronicles the creation of art pieces in China and Thailand, and the process of the artist. It, too, though, does not always stick with the artist, but it follows his subjects sometimes and learns more about them than the paintings might suggest, even when they can give vibes of much below the surface. Really, it is a very impressive piece of filmmaking that captures much in its short running time.
24 City – After watching Unknown Pleasures, I learned of the excitement of the release of 24 City on DVD. I saw it as soon as I had the chance, at first not even knowing that it was essentially a documentary. It was only after I had witnessed the profound impact of the film that I had even learned that half of it was staged. In any case, though, the film held me, and I believe that it would still hold me now, even knowing the reality of what Jia did. The film takes place as a large factory is being shut down to pave way for an upcoming large housing complex called 24 City. Interviewed in the film are eight people (four of whom were involved in real events, and four actors) all relating stories that had to do with being a worker for the factory, or being somehow related to that life. The sadness which enveloped most of the participants had me nearly crying myself. Knowing what I know now, I came to the realization that it does not matter if half of the confessionals are faked, because it is all keeping with the same spirit, the same tone – Jia does not compromise truth by adding actors, no, because he keeps the raw essence of what truth there really is. 24 City is, perhaps, one of the most profound and emotional experiences I’ve had watching a film all year.
Cry Me a River – When Cry Me a River was uploaded onto MUBI’s database, I went to see if it was, perhaps, online somewhere to watch. Thankfully, I found the short rather quickly, right on Youtube, to watch. I put it on, and I was enveloped for its brief running time. The story of four classmates who go to a small reunion with their teacher, and who, along the way, discuss their lives, as many have not seen each other in a long period of time. Truth comes out at the end, and then that’s it. It ends. When I finished it, I had been very impacting, although I found that it ended almost too quickly, perhaps arbitrarily. That being said, I cannot blame Jia for confronting the truth of a situation and leaving it on the table for the audience to digest and think about. It is, yes, a small film, one that should probably be seen more than once to fully digest (and, since it’s so short, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue), but it is also one that concerns who we are, and how we, after so long, have gradually changed.
When it comes down to it, pretty much all of Jia’s films that I have seen have impacted me in some way, some incredibly strongly, and some less so (thankfully, more of the former). I am very pleased to have witnessed such a filmmaker as him, one who wishes that people in China might realize something about their own lives, their own homes, their own neighbors and friends, while still somehow managing to enlighten all who watch his films, not only the select group he wishes to enlighten. It is a true joy to see one of his films, and I hope that, as he continues to make films, more of his other works might become more widely available. Thankfully, many of his films have been released on DVD, and that we have the privilege to see so much. Here’s hoping that he does not stop his work any time soon.