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The Walter Reade's current Chinese series ends Thursday with a single screening of Jia Zhangke's remarkable Platform, a superbly detached three-hour epic that, spanning the 1980s, meditates on the changes of that period through the mutation of the propaganda-performing Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the equally cheesy All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band.

The 31-year-old Jia, who is an independent rather than studio filmmaker, has a strong visual style (scrupulous compositions based on long fixed-camera ensemble takes) and a powerful set of thematic concerns (the spiritual confusion of contemporary China, caught between the outmoded materialism of the Maoist era and its market-driven successor), as well as a vivid sense of place (dusty, inland Shanxi province). Following on his 1997 debut, Xiao Wu, the semidocumentary story of a supremely diffident Fenyang pickpocket who fails to adapt to China's new liberal economy, Platform puts Jia at the forefront of current Chinese cinema.

Strictly his and hers: Pitt and Roberts in The Mexican
photo: courtesy of Merrick Morton/Dreamworks
Strictly his and hers: Pitt and Roberts in The Mexican

Details

The Mexican
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by J.H. Wyman
A DreamWorks release

Company Man
Written and directed by
Douglas McGrath and Peter Askin
A Paramount Classics release
Opens March 9

Platform
Written and directed by Jia Zhangke
Walter Reade March 8

Elliptical yet concrete, Platform is a laconic tale of lackadaisical love and even more haphazard entertainment, as played out in a series of unheated factory halls and outdoor courtyards. The environment is at once dreary and exotic, prisonlike and vast. The group tours throughout the Chinese interior; the Great Wall, casually used as a place to rehearse or tryst, is a recurring visual motif. Geographic markers are matched by the precise fashion changes in hairstyle and dress that Jia uses to indicate the passage of time. Platform—which takes its title from a Chinese hit rock song of the '80s—is pop art as history. Paeans to Chairman Mao are supplanted by Taiwanese rock anthems ("Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan"); communal screenings of the '50s Hindi musical Awaara give way to "marital aid" sex education videos; braids become perms; suddenly, one notices color TV.

With its objective, almost clinical viewpoint and lovingly chosen, generally bleak locations, Platform looks like a documentary. But, perhaps influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster, Jia finds many subtle ways to transform the world into a stage. The play of the proscenium against the filmmaker's clear Bazinian taste for unmediated reality is fascinating: When one character is poised to disappear forever from the narrative, Jia allows her the privileged moment of a solo dance number performed in the privacy of her room.

Jia also uses a distanced camera placement for maximum context. There's a quietly magnificent, deeply melancholy shot of the hapless Electronic Band, listlessly pelted with garbage by one of its first audiences, performing by the side of a highway on the banks of the Yangtze, boats full of Panasonics floating past. The penultimate image, held long enough for the full weight of quotidian despair to infect the audience, is the epitome of the film's odyssey from kindergarten collectivity to failed privatization.

Platform has had only one previous public screening here, at the last New York Film Festival. As the movie has been recently (and pointlessly) cut by nearly 40 minutes, mainly shortening the performance sequences, this could be the last opportunity to see a major work by a striking new talent in its original form.

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