Cultural Evolution

Jia Zhangke's Lost Highways

Yu came up with the film's English title while translating notes that Jia had written for his Datong documentary: "Zhangke had a sentence about how he thought it was a place with a lot of sadness but also undefined pleasures and compulsions, and I immediately thought of the Joy Division album." (Yu's own directorial debut, a homesick ballad about mainlanders adrift in Hong Kong, was titled Love Will Tear Us Apart.) Jia says he's been a pop fan since before it was legal. "My earliest impression of outside culture is listening to the songs of [Taiwanese singer] Teresa Teng on the radio," he says. "It's just like you see portrayed in Platform, secretly listening to the Taiwanese radio stations." As the floodgates opened, he graduated to break dancing (the propaganda-performing collective in Platform morphs into the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band) and succumbed to the "philosophy fever" of the mid '80s, devouring previously unavailable translations of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Freud. His early movie loves (besides Breakin') were De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, Hou's The Boys From Fengkuei, and Bresson's A Man Escaped—films that seem to be the very building blocks of his humanist-spiritual realism.

Shot without Film Bureau permission, Jia's movies still cannot be screened in China. At one point in Unknown Pleasures, someone tries without success to buy bootlegs of Xiao Wu and Platform; Jia says the situation is slightly better in reality. "You can actually get VCDs. You can get bootlegs even of my student films. I travel to universities and clubs and screen my films on video. That's the only way to promote them in China." His dual local runs this month notwithstanding, one of the most important directors working today remains one of the most underseen.

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