Allow me to begin with a cliché: 2010 has been an insipid year at the movies. I really struggled to come up with this list because it just didn’t feel like there were many contenders for it. The tail of this list is shaky at best and I wouldn’t want to defend it with all my heart, I think. I’m not saying that there were no great films made in 2010. One bizarre phenomenon of the recent years has been the growing time difference between the world premiere of a film and its distribution/release. Movie lists this year have been almost entirely made of films that actually premiered in 2009 (or earlier) and, going by the trend, it wouldn’t be really a surprise if the 2011 lists consisted wholly of movies that premiered in 2010. (This list, however, is based on world premieres alone). This is not a wild thought at all, considering how stellar the list of filmmakers who premiered their films this year, without a release, has been. (Trust me, there are about 50 big titles that haven’t been mentioned in many of the lists. My biggest misses this year include The Strange Case of Angelica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nostalgia for the Light, The Ditch, Meek’s Cutoff, Get Out Of The Car, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aurora and The Four Times, among others. Rest assured that I’ll drop an updated list here around March, hopefully). Given this, 2011 is truly going to be one hectic year for film buffs, with dozens of vital films from both years to be seen. Fasten your seat belts.

 

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThat Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the greatest feature by the Thai director is only worthy of a footnote. It is, in fact, what Nathaniel Dorsky calls Devotional Cinema. Boonmee is a work that amalgamates the process of film, human metabolism and the intermittence of our being like no other. Treating life as one continuous entity without a beginning or an end, where death and reincarnation are just various modes of existence, Boonmee so lovingly examines how these modes are integral to functioning of film where, in each frame, the past dies, yet persists and projects itself into the future. Furthermore, the film is also Weerasethakul’s response to the recent upheavals in his country where the political past of the country seems to resist death, reincarnating itself in kindred happenings of the present. Weerasethakul’s picture is at once a tribute to national cinema of the past, an elegy for film and a welcome note to digital filmmaking. It is at once a return to nascence and a leap into the future. Uncle Boonmee is cinema. Uncle Boonmee is cinema.

2. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France/​Switzerland)


Film SocialismEven if Godard confirms the rumour that he’s going to call it a day, there’s nothing really to get vexed about. That’s because he has produced a body of work that is yet to be discovered in its full form, qualitatively and quantitatively. Film Socialism is not his last film because it is his last set of films. Yes, like that gargantuan video work of the 90s about the history of cinema, Film Socialism is a work that reconfigures and renews itself every time one sees it. It might all seem like a loosely connected set of arbitrary images, sounds and words. But that’s because arbitrariness is in its very DNA. If not anything else, it is “about” arbitrariness – of value, of ideologies, of laws and of languages – and the death of grand truths. Itinerating between the 70s style agitation, 80s style humanism and 90s style lamentation of his works and with a novel appreciation for individual images, words and objects, Film Socialism is simultaneously a summation of his career and an undoing of it. From the self-deprecating opening line of his first feature, to the “No Comment” 50 years later, Godard has probably said everything in between. Film Socialism is his signature.

3. Honey (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey/Germany)


HoneyYoung Yusuf always looks up to his father. Literally. This might be partly due to his undernourishment, but it is also because he refuses to grow up. The final and the finest film in Kaplanoglu’s trilogy, Honey evokes the experience of childhood, or rather the experience of its end, like a few films do, intertwining reality, memories, dreams and anxieties of the age. It so affectingly captures what it means to be thrust into a fatherless world: a family without father, a film without a hero, a universe without God. (The previous film in the triad deals with Yusuf’s relationship with his mother). Yusuf’s conversations with his father, themselves, resemble private confessions to a higher power. Kaplonoglu’s picture is somewhat of a paradox. The reverse chronological structure of the trilogy prompts psychoanalysis while Honey itself is, cleverly, non-reductive. Like Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Honey is a film about childhood confronting adulthood against its own wishes. Ana dares to leave behind her childhood. Ahmed survives the confrontation. Yusuf refuses to grow up.

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy)


Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, at its worst, is a rundown of modern western philosophy, especially its key questions about perception, beauty and the self. So allow me to steal some from old Fred to sum up the film: “Artists alone hate this lazy procession in borrowed manners and left-over opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, unique even unto each move of his muscles; even more, that by strictly in consequence of this uniqueness, he is beautiful and worth regarding, new and incredible, as every work of nature, and never boring.”. Kiarostami probes the validity of every clause above and keeps examining what the ideal way to live is and whether there is an ideal way at all. Does one understand the world through grand mechanisms and regard what one sees and hears as abstractions of invisible truths or does one confront these concrete objects as they are and deem the ideas uniting them as abstract and removed from experience? Kiarostami’s film is an irresolvable tug-of-war between subtexts and surfaces, accidents and forethought, conservatism and radicalism and, well, form and content.

5. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Germany/France/Netherlands)


My JoyI can’t believe I’m including this patently cynical, relentlessly dystopian and ideologically simplistic film in this list, but the talent and craft here are undeniably overwhelming. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is a film that threatens the uniqueness of Uncle Boonmee in that it too collapses historical time to sketch the sociopolitical portrait of a country that has ceased to progress and is moving around in circles of betrayal, oppression and violence. Its causes might be varied – residual bureaucracy, newfound market economy, WW2, Cold War – the manifestations nevertheless, Loznistsa suggests, are the same. Echoes of a scene are felt in another, similar situations and outcomes permeate historically different periods and essentially nothing changes except costumes and period details. It’s as if the director and the set of actors are trying in vain to recreate another age that might offer escape. Loznitsa uses interruption itself as a stylistic device wherein the genre (road movie “detours” into a sci-fi nightmare) and the narrative (character identification killed) are disrupted for treatises on power and its abuse. As presaged in the opening scene, it is the director as tyrant and the audience as victim.

6. Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)


Of Gods And MenAt a time when blanket rejection of all religion is the most advertised and subscribed worldview, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes as a much needed dose of sobriety. A worthy successor to that staggering Winter Light (1963, plugs to Bergman galore), Of Gods and Men is a expertly mounted tightrope act that strikes a tense balance between faith and reason, individualism and collectivism, idealism and materialism and democracy and authoritarianism. True to this spirit of philosophical investigation, the best shots in the film are composed like tableaus from ancient Greece, of which either God or the audience is regularly made a part. The stance here is, clearly, neither pro-religion nor anti-terrorist. The film is neither a critique about the perversion of religion by politics nor a lamentation about the loss of faith in a Post-Enlightenment world. It is about what Faith means to the individual. The monks in the monastery are neither theists deluded by the promise of a paradise nor victims caught in the vortex of international events. They are merely Kierkegaardian knights who leap beyond rationality to discover what it means to be human, to be mortal, to believe.

7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA)


Shutter IslandAn hommage to Alfred Hitchcock among others, and possibly a remake of Vertigo (1958) as well, Martin Scorsese’s atmospheric wonder Shutter Island is about the absolute loss of control, about not being able to know whether you’re awake or dreaming, about being swept off solid ground and left floating and about the agony of losing everything that was dear to you. For filmmakers, especially ones as authoritative as Hitch and Scorsese, this fear of losing hold is so palpable and justified. Set in post-war America, where red signaled danger in more ways than one and where either you were crazy or the entire world around you was, Scorsese’s film has someone or the other consciously playing roles throughout. The sense of artificiality and instability is accentuated all through with tribute-providing rear projection and matte backgrounds. As literalized in its story, Shutter Island is also a battle between modernist paranoia and postmodernist schizophrenia wherein the director’s playfulness is pitted against ambitions of serious, personal expression. And I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but there’s no twist in the film.

8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)


I Wish I KnewThe greatest filmmaker of the last decade continues to do what he does best: make great films. Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew, a cousin to his previous film, is a symphony of city symphonies. The sheer scope of Jia’s investigation and the humungous historical and geographical ground he covers is daunting. Walking a thin line between state propaganda and personal vision, dispassionate observation and critique and aesthetization and respectful documentation, Jia has created a film that might look like the most reverential and non-committed of all his works. Like his last film, Jia probes how the older Shangainese’s history and identity has inextricably been linked with that of the city and the state and how the younger generation seems to have found the luxury to be apolitical and the freedom to move beyond. Globalization isn’t so bad after all. Or is it? One could arrive at two wholly different films by just editing the film in two different ways – one film that the state wants Jia to make and the other that we want Jia to make. Jia’s probably made the film he wants.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)


The Social NetworkAs the marketers of old studio films would say, The Social Network is a film for everybody. It truly is a film for every ideology, every reading and every level of engagement. The film is whatever you want it to be. There’s something about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg that’s both seductive and repulsive. His triumph is one that’s both inspiring and horrifying. Barring the last scene of the film, which probably kills off the ambivalence thus far and impresses itself on our memory of the film a little too heavily, the film does a remarkable balancing act, placing immense trust on the details for the maintenance of this ambiguity. It doesn’t have as much to say about how we live our lives online as it does about how we generally live in a world infested by final clubs of every sort, all the time conforming to popular ideas about the price of genius. That’s why The Social Network works much better when read as a slightly metaphysical tale, displaced from its context, than as a critique of the new world. There’s a vicious, Greenberg-like bitterness about this new phenomenon no doubt, but there’s also a sense of optimism beyond its control which acknowledges that there might be a way out after all.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, USA)


Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldA hundred years from now, when social researchers (or aliens, if you are a Mayan) attempt to find out about this little curiosity called the internet, they will refer not to Fincher’s white elephant but this wicked termite that has volumes to say about how most of us perceive the world today. If The Social Network is about Web 2.0 as seen from outside, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the same experienced from within. If Fincher’s film is the Facebook movie, Wright’s is the Twitter movie. There is barely an action, a line or an event that is allowed to complete. Everything that is marginally superfluous or even implicit is edited out. Information travels at the speed of light and it is, more often than not, trivial, useless and self-parodying. Time and space melt down to form a unified, nearly irrational warp zone where there’s almost no difference between reality and dream. This confusion of identities, so typical of our era and often alluded to in the film, is reflected in the pastiche-like nature of the film which borrows as much from web design and TV commercials as it does from comic books and video games. Devilishly inventive, “sublime”.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

Hai Shang Chuan Qi (2010) (I Wish I Knew)
Jia Zhang-ke
Mandarin

 

I Wish I KnewA project commissioned by the state in view of the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew (2010) is a thematic extension of 24 City (2008) and is much more freely structured and much broader in scope compared to its predecessor. The larger part of the film presents interviews with older residents of Shanghai (along with those of Taiwan and Hong Kong) who gleefully recollect their family’s history, which reveal the ever-growing chasm between the city’s past and present. Personal histories seem to be based on and shaped by the city’s tumultuous politics and culture. We see that the people being talked about were viewed as mere ideological symbols incapable of erring or transforming. In addition to his employment of mirrors and reflective surfaces suggesting both documentation and subjectivity, Jia films the interviewees in extremely shallow focus as if pointing out their being cut off from the present (It takes them the sound of breaking glass or the ring of a cellphone snap back to reality). This tendency is contrasted with the final few interviews of younger people where we witness how life can change course so quickly and how one can assume multiple social personalities on whim and float about like free entities. Losing one’s sense of existence in a particular environment is perhaps not a big price to pay after all for the seeming freedom of choice it gives. One’s history is no longer defined by one’s geographical location. One is no longer bound by dialectical ideologies. There is apparently no influence of the past on the present, in every sphere of life, whatsoever. Mistakes of the past are obscured by the glory of the present and the loss of values, by cries of progress. Jia’s view of the city is, against our wishes for a disapproving perspective, neither nostalgic nor rosy. It’s holistic.

P.S: Don’t let the warmed up arthouse trick of having Zhao Tao wander the city streets in search of the city’s soul turn you off. Jia more than compensates for it with his search.

 

[Capsule added to The Films of Jia Zhang-ke]

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks (2003)
Wang Bing
Mandarin

We have to leave sooner or later anyway. Can’t hold back the tides of progress.

 

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The TracksI’d so far thought that it was Jia’s The World (2004) that truly summed up the state of the third world in the first decade of the new century. While I’ve not changed my opinion entirely, Wang Bing’s phenomenal DV work Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) forces me to. Epic in scope and size, West of the Tracks is divided into three films subtitled Rust, Remnants and Rails. Between 1999 and 2001, when China had embarked on a mission of mass privatization of the country, Bing lived and shot this film in the district of Shenyang located in the city of Tie Xi in northeastern China where smelting and electrical industries were to be closed down. These industries were purportedly established by the Japanese to help them produce ammunitions for the war, but were nationalized after Japanese retreat. Although these factories were doing well till about the eighties, the profits started waning by the mid-nineties (due to bad management, some workers say) and, by the end of the decade, the factories had filed for bankruptcy resulting in mass layoffs and appalling cuts in pay of the workers. The film is a Herculean effort by a single man, who is credited as the producer, director, cinematographer and the editor of the film (which is ironical considering that this is the kind of film that tries to efface authorship). Bing apparently shot several hundred hours of footage for this film and edited it secretly and illegally in a TV studio. The result is one of the greatest films of the decade.

Rust, the longest of the three parts of this monumental work, opens with extended tracking shots photographed from a train that succinctly sum up the nine-hour film that is to follow. The snow-tainted lens of the handheld camera tells us the attitude of the filmmaker towards his subject – that of a empathetic and trustworthy observer who will place himself amidst the people he will be documenting – and the train, which comes to a halt after trudging through the snow-clad premises of the Shenyang smelting complex, itself becomes a fitting metaphor for the underproducing factories that will soon come to a full stop. In Rust, Bing chronicles the everyday life of the workers at the copper, iron and zinc smelting factories of Shenyang and through it, the failure of a utopian socialist dream. A large part of this section gives us workers going about doing their routine – unloading the metal ores, refining them, operating the blast furnaces and processing the extracted metals – and relaxing at the break rooms where they play chess and mahjong, involve in verbal fights and talk cynically about the state of the factory. This technique is crucial for the film since it is this very technique that aids the film to abstain from making any overt political statement and helps us empathize with the workers’ plight and way of life. It is this experiential mode of identification that justifies the running length of the film too. Had Bing cut down the film to a more viewer-friendly runtime, the product would have been a more analytical and agenda-driven film rather than a humanistic work that it is.

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks - RustIt is in these decidedly mundane sequences that we witness how inhuman the work at the factories is. The communist dream of the glorious worker seems a mere propaganda when one observes what happens at these industries. We are told that the lead content in the factories’ atmosphere is hundred times the allowable limit. The workers later go to a hospital to rid their bodies off the poison that they have taken in from the factory. The machines have literally infested their lives. The workers have become functional accessories required to keep the machines running, literally and figuratively (This personal sacrifice asked of people for a supposedly greater good – a motto that seemed common only to totalitarian socialist regimes – manifests in even more objectionable terms in the second part of the film), but they would have to almost kneel begging for pension before the government. The toughest part in this whole ordeal seems to be to come to terms with the fact that the faith that the workers had towards their government turned out to be an act of naïveté. Rust is the least narrative of the three segments and it is indeed tough to get hold of a perspective through which you can assess the happenings. In fact, the only probable protagonist of this section is, like Tsai’s cinema hall, the industrial complex itself. The complex, through its days of glory and disgrace, appears to denote the death of a civilization – from being a place full of people and public baths to a cold, deserted wasteland. After the industry is shut down, one of the workers, ransacking the now-empty break rooms, finds the identity card of a worker among the debris. We do not get to know the name on the card. We needn’t. It’s the condition of all the industry workers at Shenyang.

The three hour long second segment of the film, Remnants, takes place in the residential complex that houses the family of the workers at the Shenyang factories. Bing employs the same identification technique as in the previous film, following a large number of people living in the area and getting us accustomed to the way of life in the place. The first hour mostly deals with a bunch of teenagers knocking about the township during Valentine’s Day without any apparent work or education to care about. Some of these directionless youth take to violence and turn hoodlums for petty sums of money. It is in this infinitely rich segment that the film opens up numerous avenues for analysis of class, crime, justice and human rights. Like the Shenyang industries, the residential complex is to be torn down as per orders and is to be replaced by privately constructed and owned chain of apartments. Some of the residents, who realize the power of the institution they are up against, decide to dismantle their own houses (like the workers who take the industries apart), sell off whatever scrap metal that remains and move into the criminally unfair amount of compensatory space they are being allocated elsewhere. In that regard, the dilapidating neighbourhood that they live in becomes highly expressionistic and indicative of the moral and psychological downfall they are experiencing.

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks - RemnantsThe more gutsy ones, on the other hand, decide to stay put and force the private organization and the government to give them their due. The latter retaliates by cutting off the town’s supply of water and electricity. The people, again, try to obviate the need for electricity by harnessing daylight as much as possible. Like the gestures of these people, Wang Bing’s film is also an act of resistance, of documenting what remains unheeded and unsaid and of rethinking accepted notions of progress and development. His refusal to stay with the people who don’t leave instead of those who move on clearly exemplifies his stand. What we see in this second segment is the same kind of human rights violation that takes place in every developing country around the world, be it due to the Three Gorges project in China or the Narmada project in India. There are only a few films such as Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life (2006), Yu Yan’s and Yifan Li’s Before the Flood (2007) and Simantini Dhuru’s and Anand Patwardhan’s Narmada Diary (1995) that act as voices of resistance amidst the cries of national glory and pride. The important thing to recognize is that these voices exist and need to be heard. One old man in Bing’s film, who is on the verge of throwing in the towel, tells us that we “can’t hold back the tide of progress”. One might call the statement cynical or practical, but the point is that an attempt should be made, even if in vain, to hold the tide back so that there are no more such tides.

The third segment of the film is called Rails and charts the final months at work of the employees of the Shenyang Railway system that manages shipments into and out of the district. This section could be seen as a conglomeration of the first two in the sense that it deals with both the workplace and the residential space of the workers. It is also in this segment that Wang Bing gives the film the semblance of a narrative and boils his character set down to two people – Old Du, a coal gleaner working in the railways with the cooperation of the workers who run the trains, and his son Du Yang. The driving force of this segment is the arrest of Old Du by the railway authorities which causes Yang to break down from his passive state. In the film’s most affecting sequence, Bing photographs Yang in his house on the day following his father’s arrest. Yang shows us a bunch of family photographs, talks about his mother who has left him alone and, just when the clock strikes ten and a melodious tune plays, starts crying. It’s a divine moment in filmmaking. Not once does Bing use non-diegetic music in the film but just at the moment when Yang stands on the verge of a breakdown, the clocks chips in with its heartwarming music (Bing reflexively pans to reveal the source of music, as if vindicating himself!). Earlier, Old Yu tells us: “There aren’t many people who would be willing to live the way we do”. It’s a devastating statement that shows how deep the social ladder descends.

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks - RailsThe film’s critical stance against the feverish rate of privatization of industries and public spaces might make Bing seem like a staunch leftist, a leftover Maoist of sorts. But a close look at the film, especially its first part, reveals that Wang Bing is only championing human rights, regardless of what ideology it entails. He is critical of the rapid privatization, but he is also reflecting on the failed socialist dream of the nation. Songs full of empty Maoist rhetoric abound the soundscape (all diegetic, of course) humorously counterpointing the utopian vision of the Cultural Revolution with the systematic corporitization of the country by the same party. As seen in Rails, Mao and Lenin have becomes mere names to be bandied about in conversations. Even in his subsequent film, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), his interest lies in exploring how the hunt for the rightists of the “black clique” (Maoist counterpart of the red hunt in the United States) resulted in the oppression of individuals, even those who worked for the party, and the confiscation of their basic rights. This passing of national dreams and political visions into the realm of speculation and wishful thinking is one of the numerous thematic connections that Bing’s films share with those of Jia Zhang-ke. In fact, echoes from West of the Tracks can be found in all of Jia’s works – from the impact of the Cultural Revolution in Platform (2000), through the wayward youth of Unknown Pleasures (2002), the ever increasing class rift in a globalized world in Still Life (2006) to the disintegration of the socialist dream in 24 City (2008, the film that starkly resembles Rust). Although these two artists have worked on similar themes, they have, however, done so in their own idiosyncratic ways, with wondrous results

As such, West of the Tracks (and Fengming: A Chinese Memoir more so) does not have a premeditated aesthetic that imposes an external meaning on the reality of the film. The cinematography and editing are almost purely functional and there is barely a cut or a reframing that suggests personal authorship. The film seems to lie so close to the end of that Bazinian asymptote to reality, that it opens up possibilities to read life as art, even if the filmmaker does not intend to create such a meaning. One might say that the naked men who walk around on screen are suggestive of the workers’ identity being stripped down to nothing, but it is only their workplace routine. One might say that the workers are dwarfed and marginalized by the humongous machines they are working on, but it’s just a material truth. One might say that the wife swapping story that the workers share in good jest has considerable parallels in their national politics, but it is just small talk that they indulge in. Same is the case for the trains that often switch tracks. What West of the Tracks does is to create that essential distance between reality and art to give us (pardon the pun) a better picture of ourselves, to create poetry from everyday activities, to aestheticize life. But more importantly, the film makes a strong case for DV filmmaking. Bing’s cinematography is entirely handheld and he prefers to shoot from amidst the workers and from their eye level. Only Digital Video could have provided this material flexibility for Bing. He religiously performs the role of a historian, capturing passages that would otherwise be relegated to the level of footnotes. He neither exploits the grief of the people he’s filming to create his art nor does he try to analyze their situation and make an overarching statement. He merely lives among them, staying in the sidelines with humility and standing witness to the downward spiral they are thrust into. This way, Bing’s film makes a strong case for cinema itself, taking it closer to what it out to be and what it was devised for – to capture and save reality from destruction, negligence and falsification.

(Continued from Part 1)

Shijie (The World, 2004)

The WorldIf there is a film that perfectly sums up the state and outlook of the third world in the first decade of the new century, it has to be Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World (2004), first of the director’s film to be made with official consent. The very premise and setting of the film – a bunch of youngsters working a world park where you can witness life-size replicas of wonders from across the world – provide us with the various undercurrents that characterize the film without being ostentatious. Much like the previous Jia films, the people in The World are terribly out of sync with the environment surrounding them. This is a land where the terrible distances of the real world are pruned down to a few miles, yet the distance between individuals has increased manifold (The cramped and decrepit dressing rooms provide a counterpoint to the grandeur of the park’s front end). This is a zone which enables one to fulfill one’s desire to escape into a whole new world, yet one has to lose every shred of his/her individuality to do so (One of the early shots shows us a bunch of uniformed workers who don’t appear much different from the props they are carrying). This idea of one’s identity being stripped off, layer by layer, is built into the whole structure of the film. Dialects are normalized, costumes are changed by the minute and passports are confiscated. One of the characters towards the end tells: “It’s nice being in someone else’s home” – a delusion that seems to be common to all the residents of this synthetic world.

Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006)

Still LifeStill Life (2006), which might be the best film by Jia Zhang-Ke yet, presents two stories sewn together thematically and temporally by two significant pan-and-cut shots. The first of them presents a coal miner, Sanming, from rural China moving to Three Gorges to meet his wife after 17 years and the second one gives us a young woman, Shen Hong, traveling to the same place to meet her husband whom she hasn’t seen for 2 years. Using these two threads connected by the China’s Three Gorges Dam project, Jia examines both the disparities, including that of class (Sanming works at the bottom of the rung while Shen Hong’s husband supervises the project), generation (Sanming’s traditional values are pitted against Shen Hong’s strength and resilience) and gender (Sanming and Shen Hong can be seen as the antithesis to each other’s spouses), and the commonalities that characterize the two different worlds that Sanming and Shen Hong inhabit. The prime motif that permeates Still Life is the destruction of the old and the birth of the new. Sanming yearns to return to the past while Shen Hong runs away from it. Residences are cleared to make way for the dam. English language shows its head regularly. And songs about eternal love play on the soundtrack ironically. Lastly, Jia’s film is also a paean to the marvels of the human body – the body that can create and destroy structures much, much larger than it, the body that is ultimately rendered inconsequential (as underscored by Jia’s striking compositions of man constantly being loaded down by the weight of his own creations) by the national importance of the structures themselves.

Dong (2006)

DongMade as a companion piece to the superior film Still Life, much of whose footage it shares, Dong (2006) sits somewhere alongside The Mystery of Picasso (1956) and The Quince Tree Sun (1992) in the way the director uses another artist – a painter, as is the case with the other two films – to examine the nature of his own work. Dong follows actor and painter Liu Xiao-Dong (who makes a brief appearance in The World) as he completes two of his five-piece paintings – one at the Three Gorges Dam construction site and the other in Bangkok, Thailand. Like Jia, Liu is a realist. Even he prefers to document his subjects from a distance as it provides him “better control and precision”. But when one of his subjects dies in an accident, all he can do is patronize the deceased person’s kids. Is Jia reflecting on the purpose of his own work? Perhaps. Although I believe that there has been an indictment of patriarchy, especially its presence in art, throughout Jia’s body of work, it is most manifest in Dong. In the first segment, Liu admires the body of his naked male models and paints them with utmost enthusiasm while, in Bangkok, he calls his models as “scantily-clad women” and completes his work somewhat dispassionately. We then notice that he is in an alien land not just in geographical terms. Again, it would not be an overstretch to consider much of this satire as self-criticism, given that Jia himself has been unrestrained in marveling the male body in his work, specifically in Still Life.

Wuyong (Useless, 2007)

UselessUseless (2007) could be considered as a logical extension of Still Life and Dong because it deals with a number of ideas common to those two films. Divided into three segments each of which takes up a unique perspective of the Chinese textile industry, Useless is a dense, meditative essay on production, consumption and function of art. It’s hard not to think of the film as an attempt by Jia to discover his responsibility as an artist and to locate himself within the cinema of his country. Throughout the film there is a battle between aesthetic and functionality of art – a struggle that seeps even into the film’s form – that is manifest in the segments involving mass depersonalized production, custom “auteurist” design catering to the west and smalltime tailoring to suit individual needs. However, Jia’s film does not take a pre-determined stance and shares our indecisiveness. The very fact that the director chooses “impersonal” high-def over the intimacy of film illustrates the complexity underlying the question. Furthermore, Jia’s film also examines the chasm that exists between the oriental and western perceptions of beauty and art. What is a fact of life in China – soiled bodies, dirty and worn out clothes – is considered an exotic, delicately assembled work of art in the west. Female nudity is commonplace in western art whereas male nudity takes its place in the oriental counterpart. When Jia pans his camera over female models getting ready for a show at Paris Fashion Week, one is reminded of the opening shot of Still Life where Jia’s male models sit unclothed in a boat, ready for their performance in the film.

Er Shi Si Cheng Ji (24 City, 2008)

In 24 City (2008), the latest of Jia’s great works, the director interviews several people all of whom are connected in some way to the prestigious aircraft manufacturing site, Factory-420, in Chengdu city that is now being torn down to make way for a residential complex. What Platform does in the present tense, 24 City does in the past. Each of these accounts so clearly elucidates what is essentially positive and what is not about life in a communist regime. The sheer joy of living as a symbiotic community seems to be counterbalanced by a tendency of individual wishes getting overridden by collective objectives. Throughout, these testimonies effortlessly present how, once, personal tragedies were invariably connected to national decisions and how an individual was able to define himself only with respect to his community (One character even clarifies her name using a city as reference). Furthermore, these accounts also give a vivid picture of the depersonalized and dehumanized way of work at the same factory after China’s cultural reforms in the late seventies. Jia juxtaposes images of the factory being destroyed with the faces of his subjects suggesting the demise of a wholly different way of life and thought. But all is not so sweetly nostalgic about Jia’s film. The set of interviewees consists of a mixture of people who’ve actually been through what they say and actors enacting such people. Are these accounts the absolute truth or are they the comfortable versions of the past concocted by memory with the passage of time? How much of an actor is there in each of these people? Jia, never ever cynical, is content in playing the Godard-ish ethnographer. Brilliant.

Heshang Aiqing (Cry Me A River, 2008)

Cry Me A RiverPicture Jia repenting for not being completely nostalgic in 24 City and deciding to assuage that guilt with a purely fictional feature. The 20-minute short Cry Me A River (2008) is just that. A group of middle class friends, well in their thirties, meet up, have dinner with one of their professors and talk in pairs about how their lives have been after they went their own ways. This must be the first time Jia is working within the tepid confines of a genre and he does remarkably well to leave his signature all over. But it is also true that Jia is one of the few directors who truly deserve a picture in this genre, given the consistency with which he has dealt with the theme of cultural transition in his films. Wang Hong Wei and Zhao Tao seem to be almost reprising their roles from Platform, which gives the film a touch of autobiographic authenticity, considering how often the director has used former actor as his alter ego. We are far from the sweet old days of Platform where the very sight of a train was rare. It’s now a matter of a few hours crossing the whole of China. As the professor and the students have their dinner, two actors in traditional theater costume perform at the restaurant with a huge bridge as the backdrop. Two characters travel on a boat in a river whose banks are adorned by old buildings, reminiscing and confessing how much they still love each other. They are, of course, going down the river of time with a clear knowledge that they can’t reverse its flow.

Hai Shang Chuan Qi (I Wish I Knew, 2010)

I Wish I KnewA project commissioned by the state in view of the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew (2010) is a thematic extension of 24 City and is much more freely structured and much broader in scope compared to its predecessor. The larger part of the film presents interviews with older residents of Shanghai (along with those of Taiwan and Hong Kong) who gleefully recollect their family’s history, which reveal the ever-growing chasm between the city’s past and present. Personal histories seem to be based on and shaped by the city’s tumultuous politics and culture. We see that the people being talked about were viewed as mere ideological symbols incapable of erring or transforming. In addition to his employment of mirrors and reflective surfaces suggesting both documentation and subjectivity, Jia films the interviewees in extremely shallow focus as if pointing out their being cut off from the present (It takes them the sound of breaking glass or the ring of a cellphone snap back to reality). This tendency is contrasted with the final few interviews of younger people where we witness how life can change course so quickly and how one can assume multiple social personalities on whim and float about like free entities. Losing one’s sense of existence in a particular environment is perhaps not a big price to pay after all for the seeming freedom of choice it gives. One’s history is no longer defined by one’s geographical location. One is no longer bound by dialectical ideologies. There is apparently no influence of the past on the present, in every sphere of life, whatsoever. Mistakes of the past are obscured by the glory of the present and the loss of values, by cries of progress. Jia’s view of the city is, against our wishes for a disapproving perspective, neither nostalgic nor rosy. It’s holistic.

 

["Black Breakfast" - Jia Zhang-Ke's segment in Stories on Human Rights (2008)]

Jia Zhang-Ke

Jia Zhang-Ke 
(1970-)

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)

PickpocketThe 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)

PlatformPlatfrom (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 PublicIn 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)

Unknown PleasuresIf 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…)

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