Born in 1970 (Fengyang, Shanxi Province), Jia Zhangke studied painting, developed an interest in fiction, and in 1995 founded the Youth Experimental Film Group, for which he directed two award-winning videos. He graduated in 1997 from the Beijing Film Academy, and his first feature, Xiao Wu (1998) was very successful at the Berlin, Nantes and Vancouver festivals. The following films Zhantai (Platform, 2000), and Ren xiao yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002) were selected in competition respectively at Venice and Cannes. He established Xstream Pictures in 2003 in order to promote young talented directors from all over China. He directed Shijie (The World) in 2004 and his latest film Sanxia haoren (Still Life) received the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival 2006. (Bio Courtesy: Cannes Festival, Image courtesy: Glamour Vanity)
“Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky
If the filmography of Jia Zhang-Ke is to be summed up in a single line, it has to be the above statement. Along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia appears to be the pick of the past decade and has made his way into almost every best-of-the-decade list out there. With a body of work that spans only a decade and a half, the Chinese has already authored at least four great works that clearly illustrate the director’s consistency of vision and his command of the filmic medium. What sets Jia apart from his contemporaries like Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien is the narrative and thematic specificity that pervades the whole body of his work. While the latter directors have sometimes de-contextualized their narratives and resorted to broad strokes in order to, perhaps, deliberately universalize the issues they are dealing with, Jia almost always particularizes. It is true that, like the other two senior directors, Jia keeps coming back to the same set of motifs and questions, but there is always a thread that runs through his films alongside these investigations that examines his own role and responsibility as a Chinese, as a filmmaker and as a Chinese filmmaker.
Jia seems to have established his signature aesthetic very early on in his career. Even in an early and relatively minor work like Pickpocket (1997), one can see that Jia, like Tsai and Hou, favours long shots, filmed from at a distance, and uses direct sound to wondrous effect. Then there is the trademark pan shot, which Jia treats like a brush running over a very wide canvas woven in time, whose use only proliferates with the years. Jia employs this pan shot to often depict people separated by space and time and the relationship they bear with the environment they live in. This unhurried, evocative shot directly ties Jia’s cinema to those of Tarr, Wenders, Polanski, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, the last of whom is the filmmaker Jia seems to closest to, thematically and formally. His actors are regularly seen squatting – a primal and distinctly human gesture that distinguishes man from the artificial, industrial universe around him. Most times, his scenes unfold in the master shot itself, as Platform (2000) and The World (2004) clearly testify. When the scenes are not shot in natural light – night scenes, for instance – they are, more often than not, lit by a single light source that is present in the diegesis itself.
From In Public (2001) onwards, Jia seems to have taken a liking for the HD digital format (shot masterfully by Yu Lik Wai) that seems to impart an extra layer of realism and intimacy to the films. Additionally, the director does not hesitate to shift the tone within his films abruptly – a playful tendency that is also palpable in Weerasethakul’s films. One moment you witness a solemn, moving conversation and in the next, you see characters floating about in animated spaces or buildings lifting off the ground like rockets. Apart from this, Jia’s vertically unsymmetrical framing is redolent of Godard’s early political features and he similarly embeds his characters within images of reconstruction and modernization of the place they live in. Also Godardian is the fact that there are hardly any “empty shots” (Godard’s terminology) in Jia’s films. He never depicts an action just for the sake of carrying the story forward or supplying petty information. To borrow Godard’s example, if a man crosses a street in a Jia film, one can be sure that either the director is interested in the man’s gait and gesture or the details of the street he is walking on or, as is usually the case, the relationship between the two.
Xiao Wu (Pickpocket, 1997)
The only Jia film with a single protagonist that I’ve seen, Pickpocket (1997) is also the director’s most accessible film. With a script whose likes one would find in the neo-realist films of yesteryear, Pickpocket chronicles the life of the titular small-timer, Xiao Wu, played charmingly by Jia regular-to-be Wang Hong Wei, as he loiters about doing his work in the streets of Fengyang, the director’s hometown. The questions of identity and cultural dislocation, which would intensify in the filmmaker’s subsequent works, already register a strong presence in this film. Jia employs direct sound to capture ambient and stray noises of the town that suit the film perfectly. Often, Xiao Wu’s voice is overpowered by the noise from the town streets or by the blaring pop songs that flood the soundtrack, which also particularize the film’s time line, suggesting the beginning of China’s globalization process. The soundtrack is complemented by the seeming omnipresence of the local television network that seems to either intrude into people’s private affairs or feed people with more dollops of pop culture. Xiao Wu is the quintessential Jia character, a flawed individual who has failed to catch up with the changing times (while all his colleagues have successfully boarded the train) and, as a result, pays the price. It is only after he (literally) sheds his old attire and learns to sing pop songs that he somewhat feels he is a part of his surroundings. As he sits arrested to an electric pole at the end, with the townsfolk staring at him curiously, one only thinks of the inevitability of this outcome. Forget the train, Xiao Wu hadn’t even got on to the platform.
Zhantai (Platform, 2000)
Platfrom (2000), widely regarded as the director’s finest film, opens with a theatre performance that extols Mao’s communist revolution, setting up the theatre motif that permeates the entire film. Set at a time when China’s globalization measures were put into action, Platform is an epic film that actually gives the viewer the feeling of being there and drifting along with this endearing team of travelling players that stands for a whole generation – that of Jia’s – struggling to cope up with the drastic cultural transition that the measures have induced. That Jia sets the film in his hometown of Fengyang is of much importance because, according to Jia himself, it is one of China’s many towns that is far removed from the decision making machinery at Beijing and merely rolls along with the impetus given by the culture shock. Jia builds his film accumulating one insightful observation upon another, taking his characters through various signposts, such as screening of foreign films, permission for pop songs and private owned apparel shops, which indicate the direction the revolution is taking the country in. Characters go into sudden flights of fantasy, as they would in later films too, and step into improvised dance sequences and on-stage performances in an attempt to transcend the stalemate they are presently in. Jia’s film is a finely balanced mixture of nostalgia, elegy, cynicism, and hope, but never does it criticize its characters for their acts. It recognizes shares their surprise and alienation, recognizing and embracing them as flawed individuals who are yet to get onto the speeding train of progress and off the platform of cultural disjunction.
Gong Gong Chang Su (In Public, 2001)
In Public (2001), made when Zhang-Ke was scouting locations for his next film, is the most abstract of all the director’s works for it completely sacrifices a narrative for something more expressive. Running for just over half an hour, In Public is the first film by the director to be shot in digital and presents vignettes from various public places, including a railway station, a bus stop, a bus, a pool hall and a discotheque, whose images inherently bear what Jia explored in his previous two fictional features. The key sequences come towards the end, in which we see people enthusiastically participating in activities at the pool hall and at the karaoke, where the effect of China’s modernization on a remote town’s populace is most evident. Even amidst the interesting impromptu dancing lessons that are taking place in the room, Jia’s ever-curious camera (often easily spotted by the people it shoots, helmed by regular collaborator Yu Lik Wai) keeps going back to a bald man sitting on a wheel chair at one end of the room. As the camera tilts down to the chair, we see a portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from the down. If not anything else, In Public serves as a distillation of the director’s techniques with its long and medium length shots, slow pans and his discerning eye for industrial landscapes. Jia’s attention is as much on the public places as it is on the people who inhabit them. He takes equal pleasure in dwelling on an arbitrary face that attracts him and in filming people from a distance, studying their behaviour in these public spaces.
Ren Xiao Yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002)
If Platform was Jia traveling along with the touring theatre and sharing their culture shock, Unknown Pleasures is the director stepping back and looking at his counterparts of the next generation. The fact is underscored with the help of Wang Hong Wei who, as usual, remains the director’s alter ego and makes a cameo appearance, playing a variant of Xiao Wu. Slightly more cynical than all other Jia films, Unknown Pleasures is also the most light-hearted of them all, betraying a love and sympathy that the director has for his characters. A couple of middle class teenagers – Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) – knock about the town without any apparent motive when one of them falls in love with the mistress, Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao, modeled after Mia Wallace), of a local gangster. In one scene, Xiao Ji, a parody of himself, talks to her about the bank robbery in Pulp Fiction (1994). In fact, the whole film borrows much from the Tarantino film. Xiao Ji dances at the local disco with Qiao Qiao, only to get repeatedly beaten up by the gangster. He decides to rob a bank which turns out to be only marginally less funny than a Woody Allen sketch. Jia’s film apparently has China’s “single-child” policy for population control as its backdrop and Jia might just be pointing out how this has resulted in an entire generation feeding and growing up on ideas and attitudes proposed by pop culture. But, keeping in mind the director’s previous couple of works, one may conclude that Jia’s primary intention is to portray the aftermaths of a cultural shift that is just too drastic for its participants to cope up with.
(To Be Continued…)