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NYFF08: A generation moving through space ("Cry Me a River")

Hats off to the New York Film Festival, they’ve actually programmed a short film that I want to see! Chinese director Jia Zhangke, whose feature documentary hybrid what’s-it 24 City (reviewed from the Cannes Film Festival) is playing in New York’s main program, is a busy man, spinning documentary webs in the foreground and smaller, fictional ones in the background (or is the other way around?). If you are unclear as to whether I’m describing the kinds of movies he’s making or the content of the actual films themselves, perhaps that’s the point. Cry Me a River, his short playing at NYFF, disappointingly avoids the increasingly interesting mix—if not downright confusion—between the real world and the dramatic the director perfected in Still Life and has pushed in an even stranger direction in 24 City. Instead, this short is a simple affair of a foursome of old high school classmates returning to honor the birthday of a professor, pine over old sweethearts, and mourn the movement out of the hope and dreams of the youth of the 1990s into the disappointment of being an adult in the year 2008.
Okay, so dramatically Jia isn’t exactly lighting any new fires, but if Cry Me a River is a bit slumberous in story, it is spatially exciting. What does this mean exactly? The actors don’t have much to work with and don’t exactly work with it well (though I think we all welcome any reappearance of two of the directors magnetic regulars, Zhao Tao and Wang Hongwei), but the way Jia constructs the world around them, the world they inhabit, and most importantly the world they travel through, really highlights why he is considered one of the world’s best filmmakers.
I see corridors, long lengthy spaces. A basketball court seen from the sidelines suddenly opened up by a perpendicular cut revealing it scrunched into the receding distance of the long camera lens. The short depth of an apartment, freed by a pan from a fridge against the wall to a room in the back, suddenly opening up the cramped space; and the next shot, of the balcony corridor of the building complex, further extending a line of space into the background in the digital deep-focus of the composition. This is repeated again and again: a lengthy side-long tracking shot floats laterally down a canal following the ambling path of the four classmates; their professor’s birthday dinner is held in a banquet room through whose doorway you can see all the way across square and a pond to the shore on the other side; and from there another perpendicular cut places the restaurant on a flat horizontal plane just like the canal path. The movie is L-shaped indeed, the flat sideways base juxtaposed with deep receding space of its lengthy vertical.
Is it no wonder that most moving sequences of the whole of Cry Me a River are not when anything is said but rather the foursome taking a boat ride on the canal, the camera facing backward and then forward, the canal flowing up and down the z-axis of the screen? Indeed, the coup-de-grace, this minimal movie’s moment of maximum beauty, sadness, and expression is a formal one: the abrupt clouding of deep background space. Jia goes in for a single shot two-shot of a pair of the thwarted high school lovers sitting on the boat as it tugs forward. They talk around the fact they used to, and probably still do, care for one another, the camera wavering back and forth between the two. In the background, out of focus and in shallow depth, likewise rocks the distant space of the canal behind them, the vanishing point blurred and unclear, short-focus turning the boat’s movements and that of the camera into an unstable, indeterminate setting for the erstwhile and never-more couple.
There are small moments of drama in Cry Me a River that are indeed moving, be it the introverted, self-possessed walk of Wang Hongwei and the way you can tell he likes one of the women simply by the manner in which he walks up to her; or the sweet, sad gesture of Zhao Tao holding back the hood of a man’s sweatshirt as he washes his hair, all the time and disappointments past between these people traceable in such movements. But the video is not made up entirely of such eloquent scenes, such small gestures. And where the script crumples without the proper support underneath it, Jia attempts to build a space for the story that can tell its own kind of emotion and create its own kind of meaning.

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