Thanks to Jia Zhangke's new film, we will probably get an updated statement, for today, about the tricky matter that Jacques Rivette once closed while discussing Mizoguchi's cinema. The question of understanding (or not) a film's language and its cultural context.
"What is beyond doubt is that Mizoguchi's art is based on the play of personal genius within the context of a dramatic tradition. But will wanting to approach it in terms of the national culture and to find it above all such great universal values make us any the wiser? That men are men wherever they may be is something we might have predicted; to be surprised by it only tells us something about ourselves." (translation by Liz Heron)
If the question stands at the center of Jia's film, the attempted answer may well be larger than China.
In this film where Jia's personal filmic geography now includes territories outside of China and the future as another planet, a woman's mistakes on the road of life, her bereavements and bitter losses (as they play through time on the sensitive face of actress Zhao Tao) act as a tale of the tormented and cruel birth of contemporary China. The tragic destiny of pit worker Liangzi marks an era where millions are sacrificed. The pathetic failure of "businessman" Jinsheng marks the predicted end of another illusion (economy and the American model as destiny).
As in A Touch of Sin, the film starts in the native province of Shanxi and goes back to it after 25 years. As in Jia's 2000 film Platform, songs and tunes remain in the characters' minds and hearts as poignant signs of the passing of time and the bitter-sweet connection of individuals to their past. Yet the film works upon the shift in languages (spoken and filmic) through its three parts: from Shanxi dialect and 1:33 image format of the first part, taking place in 1999, to the conflict between mother-dialect and son-multilingual expression (a mix of Mandarin, Shanghai dialect and English) in the 1:85 image format of the 2014-set second part, and eventually to the tormented relationship of Chinese and English in the cinemascope wide screen of the third and final part, set in 2025.
Image and script draw an autobiography of diretor Jia Zhangke, in an anxious meditation about the relationship between his cinema and his people—so many films, including A Touch of Sin, denied an access to Chinese audience by censorship—and a desire to find new ways and new forms, beyond the temptation of discouragement or repetition. Some may wonder about a figure that follows the characters from Shanxi to Australia: a boy, then a young man, then a grown up, holding a halberd. He's a figure of divinity Guan Gong (Guan Yu), the god you find in Chinese homes (like the home of Liangzi the pit worker) and shops. A god prayed to obtain prosperity, but most of all, a symbol of righteousness. Virtue should be a guide in life even when love dies, when plans fail, when illusions vanish, and when the official "Chinese dream" appears for what it is. The discreet figure that haunts the film goes unnoticed by the characters, with the exception of working class knight Liangzi. Here we'll take the liberty to see it as a direct comment by the filmmaker.
While the image goes from the times of 1997's Xiao Wu to those of the recent Touch of Sin, a young man's biography is told. Born out of a mix of misunderstandings and illusions about the "new era" of the 21st century, grown in our times among the nouveaux riches of capitalist China, then educated in a prosperous Australia, this young man literally does not know how to speak—Hence to live. Memory is only a confused impression of déjà vu. He is learning Chinese (again), yet in a conflict with his father who never learned English. Deep in his heart are buried an image and a word: His mother's figure, and her name, which means "wave." Pronouncing his mother's name could be key to his chance to build a freedom of his own. Could it be that this young man of the future needs to connect with history—while the film itself ends in Fenyang, dancing to an old tune—with a past and a lineage, escaping the destiny that the powerful force on him? Migrant workers leave their native land to more exploitation. Rich parvenus leave China for an illusion of liberty. The future is an Australian young man looking for his own expression, and learning how to be also from a small town in a remote province of China. Not a nationalistic "son of China," nor a globalized creature. Mother as dialect, origins as a battlefield for freedom, in a world where looking back on history has become subversive. Language as a conscience of history, personal and collective. Back to the future. This time, Jia Zhangke has spoken for himself, for his people, and for all of us, more clearly than ever before.