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Retelling Stories: Jia Zhangke on "Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue"

The Chinese director discusses his latest documentary, devoted to four famous writers who represent four eras of recent Chinese history.
Darren Hughes
Above: Jia Zhangke. Photo by Darren Hughes.
Near the end of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Jia Zhangke turns his attention from the celebrated author, critic, and professor, Liang Hong, to her 14-year-old son. He appears briefly earlier in the film, staring silently at his phone while on a train, surrounded by other teenagers who likewise stare at screens. To underline his point about China’s Generation Z, Jia layers subjective sounds of video games and WeChat over the images.
In the film’s final interview, Jia asks the boy to introduce himself in Henan dialect, the native tongue of his mother, who was born into poverty in Dengzhou, more than a thousand kilometers away from their current home in Beijing. He’s uncomfortable in front of the camera, shy, a bit awkward, and the request makes him even more so. Liang rescues him by asking him to repeat after her, one phrase at a time, which he does with little hesitation. He then introduces himself again in Henan, without help, and with growing confidence.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue continues Jia’s on-going project of analyzing, in both his documentary and narrative work, the unfathomable transformation China has experienced in the 21st century. I use the word “analyze” in multiple senses, as Jia’s genius lies in his ability to map the emotional and spiritual lives of his subjects onto the nation’s shifting terrain. His work is part historiography, part political/economic critique, part psychotherapy, and in that praxis he discovers tangible, illuminating metaphors. His body of work is gradually taking the shape of wisdom literature.
Jia’s analysis is also always aesthetic. He describes Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue as the conclusion of his “Artists Trilogy,” following Dong (2006), about painter Liu Xiaodong, and Useless (2007), a profile of fashion designer Ma Ke. In May 2019, Jia traveled to the Jia family village (no relation) in his home province of Shanxi to attend a literature festival that attracted dozens of China’s most prominent authors. The event affords him an opportunity to chronicle the country’s rapid transition from an agrarian economy to a modern, industrialized one and, more pointedly, to argue for the necessity of art that engages personally and meaningfully—pedagogically, even—with the traumatic repercussions of that transition.
During a Q&A after the film’s premiere at the Berlinale, Jia compared authors to “the postman, who tells you how things are changing in other parts of the world.” A self-described avid reader, Jia has included quotations from fiction and poetry in his films since 24 City (2008) in order to “express the inner life.” “There are places cinema can go that other arts cannot,” he said in Berlin. “And vice-versa.”
Jia’s respect for the medium extends as well to the main subjects of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, four “rebel” authors who speak on behalf of four distinct eras in China’s recent past: Ma Feng (1922-2004), whose plainspoken novels of the 1940s and 1950s depict the everyday realities of village life; Jia Pingwa (b. 1952), who as a child experienced the hardships of communal living during the Cultural Revolution and whose novels set in rural Shangzhou made him a key figure in the Xungen (“Roots Literature”) Movement; Yu Hua (b. 1960), the most internationally acclaimed of the four, who in the 1980s quickly established a reputation for formal invention, which helped to shape “Chinese Pioneer Literature;” and Liang (b. 1973), whose essays, stories, and novel explore the consequences of China’s transforming economy by focusing on Liang village.
The bulk of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is built from interviews with the surviving authors and with Ma’s daughter, whose deeply personal stories and various performance styles embody four generations of cultural change without ever feeling diagrammatic. (The style of the film is more straight-forward than much of Jia’s work, but he occasionally slips in a stunning image—the deep-lined face of an elderly woman, harvesters cutting fields, a white shirt hanging from a clothesline—as a reminder that he can do so at will.) Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a middle-aged film, at once a nostalgic reckoning with one’s childhood home, in every sense of the word, and a legacy.
I spoke with Jia on February 23, 2020 at the Berlinale Palast. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue will have its North American premiere on October 1 as part of the Main Slate of the 58th New York Film Festival.

NOTEBOOK: Near the beginning of the film, there’s footage from 1979. You would have been about nine years old then?
JIA ZHANGKE: Actually, that's a fictional image that I shot for one of my first films, Platform. It’s in the same location, which is the Jia family village. The people who appear in this fictional image of 1979 were still living in the village in 1999.
NOTEBOOK: So an image of 1979, shot in 1999, and reused in 2019?
JIA: Yes!
NOTEBOOK: Why is it necessary for the new film?
JIA: The reason why I find this very, very important is because the backdrop of this particular shot, the image from 1979, is actually the village plan. [Jia corrected the translator when he said “city plan” rather than “village plan.”] We have urban planning, and we also have village planning. It's the blueprint for how they envisioned what the village would become.
When we went back for this documentary, we visited the village history museum and saw a similar village plan, or blueprint. Of course, it's very different from in 1979, but I thought the juxtaposition was important because this film is about change—about how society evolved during this period of time.
NOTEBOOK: The film includes a montage of speakers at the literature festival, and one of them says, "We've used the word nostalgia many times today.” Later someone says, "Longing for your native space is longing for reassurance." You mentioned yesterday during the Q&A that you still spend half of your time in Fenyang. Is nostalgia a necessary tool for artists? Are you nostalgic?
JIA: Yes, many of the authors talked about this idea of seeking their roots or returning home to their native birth place. I think it's because right now there's an overwhelming sense of people just feeling lost.
To understand China, you must put things in a historical context. Chinese society and the communities started in these rural villages. Imagine 700 or 800 million people at the time living in the countryside, in these rural villages. It's not until the past decades that we have experienced dramatic urbanization.
And then the younger generation, suddenly, they don't even understand or know what it’s like to have that type of rural culture, rural community, and rural history. I think it's especially important right now, in China, to be able to understand that reality. We need to not only return temporarily to the past [via memory or nostalgia], but also actually go back to the villages and rural communities. We need to understand how we have grown, how we have evolved as a society. That's why it is important to go back to your native soil.
To give you one example, a lot of young people don't understand why others don't line up for their turn. Even if they go to fly in an airplane and have assigned seats, still they will sometimes rush trying to get to their seats as if they're going to lose it. Younger Chinese don’t know that it has a lot to do with what we experienced in the past, in the rural village. It's all about not having enough food. If you don't rush, then you will have nothing to eat. We need to somehow look back and examine what it was before, how they acted before, how they thought before. That past is the foundation of Chinese reality.
Above: Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.
NOTEBOOK: Jia Pingwa tells a story about a woman who wants to become a poet. At first, his story seems a bit macho, like he's telling her to go back to the kitchen and just be a good wife and mother. But that’s just the setup for his practical artistic advice: "Writing poetry does not mean living a poetic life." Do you agree?
JIA: In my line of work as a filmmaker, I must somehow express the emotions that have accumulated within me. I want to find a way to express that innately. It cannot be helped, that I have to do this. This is something I need to do. It's more about the process of making a film to express myself, rather than thinking about the final product. I don’t think about whether or not this film, or any of my films, will make a difference or have some impact on the society.
On some level, this documentary is not really about the writings or the words of these authors. It's about how they capture what's going on at the time, how they retell stories—their personal memories and personal stories. We must preserve that part of the history, either collectively or individually. It's not unlike what you mentioned: the poetic life versus poetry. These authors have really great storytelling skills. That's the reason why I'm relying on them.
NOTEBOOK: In the first long interview, Ma Feng's daughter sounds like she has told those stories about her father a thousand times. She's very proud and practiced. And then, by contrast, Liang Hong's story at the end of the film is still very fresh to her. She gets quite emotional, as if she’s only now beginning to process the traumas of her childhood. When you're making a documentary rather than a fiction, do you still direct your performers? Did you cast the authors for their performance styles?
JIA: I think it's a little bit of both. In terms of "casting,” I selected these subjects because they represent, as you mentioned, different styles of narration, but also because of the eras and the generations they belong to. The first one, Ma Feng, through his daughter, is very much from the era of socialistic experimentations and socialist construction. He was a renowned revolutionary artist and revolutionary writer. It’s not only about the artwork or the writing itself, it's very much about his participation in certain social movements at the time.
And then you move on to Jia Pingwa, the second author. Those stories are very much about the hardship he endured during the Cultural Revolution. The third author, Yu Hua, came of age during the time of the reform and opening up. His generation somehow took on this very satirical and ironic way of speaking. His "performance," or narration style, is representative of that particular generation. Liang Hong is famous for the very private and intimate details of her characters, and that's also the way she expressed herself. I thought it fitting to have these four different authors from four different generations, or four different eras, and in four different styles.
NOTEBOOK: The film charts nearly seventy years of social and political change, but it doesn’t include the kind of historical primers that we often see in documentaries. Instead, the four interviews focus on very personal stories. You chose to look at the “micro” rather than the “macro,” as you’ve said elsewhere. What was your strategy for shooting the interviews? Were you concerned about losing the larger context?
JIA: In terms of the "control" that I can have during the production, I positioned the authors in different locations for their segment of the narrations. For the first part, in order for Ma Feng to talk about her father, I intentionally positioned her in front of her father's statue. As a daughter, to talk about your father right in front of your father's statue, definitely would evoke a lot of different emotions.
In the second one for Jia Pingwa, we actually shot it in his study because that's the place where he feels the most comfortable. It's not in public spaces because he is going to, in this particular segment, talk about something that is very private and very traumatic. Not only was he talking about the father-son relationship, but also about how he suffered, politically speaking, in his career as a result of that relationship.
The third section, with Yu Hua, is very much about public spaces—small restaurants, eateries, and food stands on the street—because these are the places where he penned the characters in his novels. That felt appropriate.
And then in the last section, I positioned Liang Hong in places that were somehow associated with her characters and with her background—the tailor shop or in the classrooms that she used to work in. Education is the one thing that changed her life. Her father insisted that she would go to school, despite not having any money. She suffered poverty, stood outside the classroom, but still she persisted, all the way to a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.
I think that's the control I can exercise in the production process in order for these narrators or storytellers to feel the most comfortable, in order to tease out their performance styles, as you mentioned earlier.


InterviewsJia ZhangkeFestival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2020NYFFNYFF 2020
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