(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…)

Tabiat-e Bijan (1974) (aka Still Life)
Sohrab Shahid Saless
Persian

“It means that you’re retired now.”

 

Still LifeSohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) is, barring Kiarostami’s Homework (1989), the greatest Iranian film that I’ve seen. To see that even during the pre-revolution era, when the escapist cinema of Hollywood and its imitations were much more popular, such uncompromising and quality films were being made is both surprising and hope-instilling. Typically European in its form but uniquely Iranian in its content, Still Life is the kind of movie that contemporary contemplative cinema takes off from. Produced by a newly formed group called Kanun-e Sinemagaran-e Pishro (Centre for Avant-Garde Filmmakers), that also produced some of Mehrjui’s early features, the film was one of the many films that were discontented with the existing way of governance. Although never overtly political, Still Life not only manages to critique deeply the disparity that existed between villages and cities of the country during the Shah’s regime, but also remains one of the best works from the country till date. Let’s wait and see what the present-day Iran brings in reply to this masterwork.

Still Life documents a period in the life of Mohammad Sardari (Bonyadi), a veteran employee of the railway services living in a rural part of the country and whose sole job is to close and open a railway crossing few times a day. He is waiting for a festival bonus from the department that is long pending. He is married and his wife (Zahra Yazdini) supplements his income by weaving carpets and carrying out minor tailoring jobs. We are only given such utterly quotidian details from his everyday life – he operates the railway gates in the morning, he rests at his accommodation near the crossing, he returns home for lunch, he goes back to operate the crossing for the evening train, he returns home for dinner and he sleeps – but that is all there is to Sardari. We are also given a few glimpses of his son who returns home for a day from the military service and a bunch of customers who exploit Sardari by underpaying him for the carpets his wife has woven. One day he receives a letter from the railway department that intimates him of his retirement from service. Sardari is unable to comprehend the meaning of the letter and starts to believe that he has been unreasonably given the sack. Heartbroken, he decides to go to the department headquarters located in the city and find out the reason.

Saless’ style is remarkable here. Almost throughout the entire film, he presents us long, uninterrupted extreme long shots of Sardari going about doing his routine at the railway crossing. Even when the old man is home, Saless and cinematographer Hushang Baharlu give us mostly medium and long shots that are filmed with the camera placed at the ground level, sometimes reminiscent of Ozu.  In either case, Saless’ eye is that of an ethnological documentarian – interested in what his protagonist is doing, but never wanting more than that. The mise en scène is spare, stripped down to bare essentials, with a chunk of space between the characters and the camera. Even gestures, dialogues and movements are reduced to an absolute minimum. Watching the indoor scenes in Still Life is like gazing at an aquarium in which the fishes indifferently perform the same mundane activities over and over again. Halfway into the film one is acquainted with the routines of the old man and his wife. He comes home, rolls his cigarette, and starts smoking and she continues to stitch clothes and weave carpets. Even when their son returns home after a long time, conversations are perfunctory and the character functions are unhampered.

Still LifeBut what is singular about Still Life is the way it handles cinematic time. Saless, while letting us witness individual scenes unfold in real time – be it entire dinner sessions or railway transitions – without hindrance, shuffles the order of these scenes in a way that disregards chronology. In one scene in the film we see the couple’s son return home and in the next one, he is missing. And then he’s back in the subsequent one. Soon one notices that most of the scenes could have taken place in any arbitrary order in real time and each of those orders is essentially irrelevant, given the idea of the film. What’s the use of chronology when time repeats itself by going in cycles? In Jeanne Dielman (1976), Chantal Akerman used each day of the protagonist life’s to illustrate its microscopic deviation from the previous. She seemed to be essentially constructing a spiral out of Jeanne’s life – a structure that made her life seem to go in circles but which, in actuality, ends only in annihilation. Saless, on the other hand, treats time as some form of stray deadlock that could only be resolved by an alien intervention. Within this loop, all time is one and each day is virtually indistinguishable from the other.

In one scene that comes towards the end of the film, Sardari visits the railway headquarters to seek an explanation for the retirement notice. In the building, he notices a pair of officers scanning through old photographs reminiscing about the past and talking about plans for the weekend, And just there, Saless provides the most overt and powerful contrast between the life in rural and urban Iran. The officers with a lush past and a busy future stand directly in opposition to Sardari, whose past is almost non-extant and whose future promises nothing different. Still Life would definitely form an interesting companion piece to Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), which seems to resonate more and more with the years. Both Thomas (played by David Jennings) and Sardari are perfectly alienated creatures who pass through life without an iota of an idea about their place in the world. Only that their geographical locations are poles apart. Thomas is one of cinema’s many alienated urbanites trying to impart a meaning to their lives. On the other hand, Sardari is the rare villager who believes that life will go on as it is and who is nudged to action only when that belief is shattered. But in essence, both of them are individuals wallowing in their own world unable to snap out of it.

Still LifeEven with all its serious themes, Still Life isn’t entirely humourless. There is a constant undercurrent of dark comedy throughout the film (In a masterstroke of black humour, Saless has Sardari regularly tune the alarm clock!), but, like all the other elements of the film, it remains extremely subtle and never thrusts itself upon us. Instead, Saless builds one stretch of time upon another, elevating the film from the territory of mere narrative cinema to the realm of the philosophical, the experiential and the contemplative. In the shattering last scene of the film, we see Sardari, who is now forced to accept the reality that he can no longer work at the railway crossing, vacating his quarters. After he loads the cart with his possessions, he decides to check the house one last time for any object he may have forgotten. As he stands in the middle of the now-empty house, gazing at the room of whose inanimate furniture he had become a part of through the years, Sardari notices the final remnant of his life at this place – a piece of mirror hanging on the wall. He reaches out to collect it and, in the process, looks at himself for the first time in the film. Mohammad Sardari has indeed become old.

 

Also published at Unspoken Cinema